Saudi Arabia says the annual hajj pilgrimage, which usually draws more than 2 million Muslims from around the world, will be limited this year to a few thousand from within the kingdom due to COVID-19.
“The number, God willing, may be in the thousands,” the hajj minister Muhammad Benten said Tuesday. “We are in the process of reviewing so it could be 1,000 or less, or a little more”.
All Muslims from outside Saudi Arabia are barred from attending the pilgrimage and Benten said that a strict health criteria will be used to select eligible pilgrims from among citizens and residents to take part in this year’s hajj. No one over the age of 65 will be allowed to attend the holy pilgrimage.
The hajj is scheduled to start by end of July.
Saudi health minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said that all workers at hajj sites would be tested and those serving the pilgrims will be quarantined both before and after the pilgrimage. Al-Rabiah also said that a specialized hospital has been prepared to handle emergencies.
The restrictions by the Saudi government are a first of its kind in modern times. Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is considered a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim.
Countries with significant Muslim populations around the world have largely been accepting of this decision. Egypt's top Muslim cleric, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, praised the decision as wise, and said it showcased Riyadh's awareness of the dangers posed by the virus.
The hajj and the lesser year round pilgrimage known as umrah, which also remains suspended, bring in around $12 billion annually to Saudi Arabia. A limited hajj will also affect the already slowed down Saudi economy.
Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 164,144 COVID-19 cases so far, with over 1,300 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.