By BITOON A RANAO
It would be the first time since 1798 that the Hajj will not take place at the allotted time.”
A senior Saudi official urged Muslims intending to perform the hajj this year to delay making plans as the pilgrimage could be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic engulfing the world.
The Saudi Minister for Hajj and Umrah Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Banten has reportedly requested that Muslims defer any preparations for the pilgrimage, scheduled for late July, due to the pandemic.
The comments have been interpreted as a sign that the ground is being prepared for cancellation, and it would be the first time since 1798 that the Hajj will not take place at the allotted time.
Approximately 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims from across the globe flock to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s second holiest city, for the week-long Hajj rituals. It also a major source of income for the oil-rich Middle Eastern kingdom.
In February, the kingdom took the extraordinary decision to close off the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to foreigners over the virus, a step which was not taken even during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.
Saudi Arabia has 1,720 confirmed coronavirus cases, with only 16 fatalities so far.
The Middle East has over 75,000 confirmed cases of the virus, most of those in Iran, and over 3,400 deaths. Iran’s health ministry spokesman, Kianoush Jahanpour, said Wednesday that the virus had killed another 138 people, pushing the country’s death toll to 3,036 amid 47,593 confirmed cases.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all Muslims and nationals,” Minister bin Taher Banten told state television. “That’s why we have requested from all Muslims around the world to hold onto signing any agreements (with tour operators) until we have a clear vision.”
Saudi Arabia has barred people from entering or exiting three major cities, including Mecca and Medina, and imposed a nighttime curfew across the country. Like other countries around the world and in the Middle East, the kingdom also suspended all inbound and outbound commercial flights.
Each year, up to 2 million Muslims perform the hajj, a physically demanding and often costly pilgrimage that draws the faithful from around the world. The hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims to perform once in their lifetime, is seen as a chance to wipe clean past sins and bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims.
Banten also said the kingdom was already providing care for 1,200 pilgrims stuck in the holy city due to global travel restrictions. A number of them are being quarantined in hotels in Mecca, he said.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency cited Banten’s remarks in stories early Wednesday, saying that Muslims should “be patient” in making their plans for the hajj.