Saudi to allow around 1,000 pilgrims to perform haj: Minister

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Saudi Arabia is to limit the number of domestic pilgrims attending the haj to around 1,000, in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, after barring Muslims abroad from the rite for the first year in modern times.
Saudi security officers stand in front of the Kaaba at an empty Grand mosque in Mecca. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIYADH (AFP) - Saudi Arabia will allow around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom to perform the haj this year, a minister said on Tuesday (June 23), after it announced the ritual would be scaled back due to coronavirus.

"The number of pilgrims will be around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more," Haj Minister Mohammad Benten told reporters.

"The number won't be in tens or hundreds of thousands" this year, he added.

The haj, one of the five pillars of Islams and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, represents a major potential source of contagion as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.

But the decision to limit the haj, scheduled for late July, is fraught with political and economic peril and comes after several Muslim nations pulled out of the ritual.

"It was decided to hold the pilgrimage this year with very limited numbers... with different nationalities in the kingdom," the official Saudi Press Agency said earlier, citing the haj ministry.

"This decision is taken to ensure the haj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective... and in accordance with the teachings of Islam in preserving lives."

The decision to limit the event comes as Saudi Arabia struggles to contain a spike in infections, which have now risen to some 161,000 cases and more than 1,300 deaths.

But it risks annoying Muslim hardliners for whom religion trumps health concerns.

A watered-down haj would also represent a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, which is already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.

The smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage was already suspended in March. Together, they add US$12 billion to the Saudi economy every year, according to government figures.

The latest announcement would likely disappoint millions of Muslim pilgrims around the world who often invest their life savings and endure long waiting lists to make the trip.

It could also trigger renewed scrutiny of the Saudi 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 prompted criticism of the kingdom's management of the haj.

A full-scale haj, which last year drew about 2.5 million pilgrims, was unlikely after authorities advised Muslims in late March to defer preparations due to the fast-spreading disease.

Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia are among countries that have announced their citizens will defer haj this year to safeguard the pilgrims' health.

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