Muslims disappointed, but accepting, as Saudi scales back hajj
Muslims expressed disappointment on Tuesday at Saudi Arabia's decision to scale back this year's hajj pilgrimage, but many accepted it was necessary as the kingdom battles a major coronavirus outbreak.
Riyadh said Monday the hajj would be "very limited" with only pilgrims already in the country allowed to perform the ritual, marking the first time in modern Saudi history that foreign visitors have been barred.
The move had looked inevitable for some time and several countries had already pulled out, but the announcement nevertheless added to disappointment for Muslims who invest huge sums and face long waits to go on hajj.
"My hopes of going to (the holy Saudi city of Mecca) were so high," said Kamariah Yahya, 68, from Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, which had already barred its citizens from the hajj earlier this month.
The hajj: Pilgrims in their millions
Millions of devout Muslims are again conducting the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrimage this year takes place amid a backdrop of political and sectarian tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and conflicts still flare in Yemen, Syria and Libya. Muslim minorities also face increased threats, including in Indian-administered Kashmir, where a sweeping curfew is in effect. By Janina Semenova
Religious joy: an experience that must be captured and recorded. For many Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is the crowning moment of their faith. It is the religious duty of every Muslim to carry out the hajj – a journey that lasts several days – at least once in their lives, providing the individual is in good health and can afford to do it. Saudi Arabia is responsible for organising the pilgrimage
Anti-clockwise: the final destination on the pilgrimage is the holy city of Mecca. All worshippers visit the Grand Mosque in the Saudi Arabian city. In the inner courtyard of the mosque is the Kaaba, the "House of God", in the form of a black cube. The pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times, always in an anti-clockwise direction
Buried under rubble: around two million people travel to Mecca every year. The pilgrimage has been frequently overshadowed by misfortune – for example, on 15 September 2015. Just as the hajj was about to begin, a storm caused a crane to collapse onto the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing more than 100 people
Trampled to death: the next tragedy occurred nearly two weeks later, on 24 September 2015. Thousands of pilgrims were trampled to death in a mass panic in the town of Mina near Mecca. This is where pilgrims are supposed to conduct the ritual stoning of the devil
Travel ban for Muslims from Iran: it is thought that some 469 Iranians were among the dead. Following the incident, Iranians demonstrated outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. The Iranian government accused Saudi Arabia of negligence. This further exacerbated the already tense relationship between the two nations. Iran has banned its citizens from making the hajj this year
High-tech support: in response to the fatal accidents, Saudi Arabia has tightened security procedures. These include the introduction of electronic wristbands to identify each individual worshipper in the crowd. The wristbands will store personal data including health details and location, as well as inform pilgrims about prayer times
Praying on the mountain: one of the most important stations on the pilgrimage is the walk on Mount Arafat. It is here that the faithful supplicate to Allah to forgive their sins. According to Islamic tradition, this is where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon. Another high point of the hajj is the Feast of the Sacrifice or Eid, celebrated by Muslims all over the world, regardless of whether they are taking part in the pilgrimage
"I've been preparing for years. But what can I do? This is Allah's will – it's destiny."
A group representing about 250 companies in Indonesia that organise Saudi pilgrimages said it understood that the five-day event, scheduled for the end of July, would be "too risky" at the moment.
But Syam Resfiadi, chairman of the Union of Hajj and Umrah Organisers, told journalists some of his group's members had "started laying off employees or even shutting down their operations – they've had no income for months".
A must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, the pilgrimage sees millions of people pack into congested religious sites and could have become a major source of virus transmission.
Shahadat Hossain Taslim, head of a group representing Bangladeshi hajj travel agencies, said "many people will be shattered" by the decision but it was for the best.
"Unlike other countries, the majority of Bangladeshi pilgrims are elderly people, and they are vulnerable to COVID-19," he said.
In neighbouring India, the minister for minority affairs said more than 200,000 people had applied to go on hajj in 2020, and they would receive a full refund of any money deposited for the pilgrimage.
The hajj ministry in Saudi Arabia, where virus cases have surpassed 161,000, has said the pilgrimage will still be open to people of various nationalities already in the country but did not specify a number.
The decision will likely appease domestic pilgrims but it prompted renewed questions about Saudi Arabia's custodianship of Islam's holiest sites – the kingdom's most powerful source of political legitimacy.
A series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has led to criticism of the kingdom's management of the hajj.
Mohamad Azmi Abdul Hamid, from charity the Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organizations, said Muslim nations should have been allowed to take a "collective decision", rather then it being left to Riyadh.
"It's high time (the holy cities of Mecca and Medina) are managed by an international board represented by Muslim countries," he told journalists.
The decision also risks annoying hard-line Muslims, for whom religion may trump health concerns.
Despite the disappointment, some Muslims were already looking ahead to 2021 and hoping they would be able to perform the pilgrimage then.
"I'm still hoping to go on hajj next year, and pray that I'll stay healthy until then," said Yahya in Indonesia. (AFP)