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In this August 13, 2019 file photo taken with slow shutter speed, Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, during the Haj in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Image Credit: AP

Kuala Lumpur: Muslims expressed disappointment on Tuesday at Saudi Arabia’s decision to scale back this year’s Haj, but many accepted it was necessary as the kingdom battles a major coronavirus outbreak.

Riyadh said Monday the Haj 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 Haj.

“My hopes of going to (the holy 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 Haj earlier this month.

“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 Haj and Umrah Organisers, told AFP 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 Haj 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 Haj in 2020, and they would receive a full refund of any money deposited for the pilgrimage.

The Haj 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.

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 Haj next year, and pray that I’ll stay healthy until then,” said Yahya in Indonesia.