Saudi official asks pilgrims to reconsider hajj plans amid virus

It was he the first public acknowledgement that the annual pilgrimage could be cancelled
Wednesday 01/04/2020
This file combination of photos created on March 07, 2020, shows a small crowd of worshippers around the sacred Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque on March 7, 2020, and a large crowd during the pilgrimage, on August 13, 2019. (AFP)
This file combination of photos created on March 07, 2020, shows a small crowd of worshippers around the sacred Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque on March 7, 2020, and a large crowd during the pilgrimage, on August 13, 2019. (AFP)

LONDON - Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Hajj and Umrah Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Banten has urged Muslims intending on performing this year’s hajj to postpone their plans in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The comments by the high-ranking Saudi official is the first public acknowledgement that the annual pilgrimage could be cancelled because of the COVID-19 virus.

In a televised interview carried on Al Ekhbariya TV, the Hajj Minister said that King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud were “concerned with the safety of all pilgrims and visitors who are in health isolation hotels and are in good health.”

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all Muslims and nationals,” 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," told Al Ekhbariya TV.

In February, Saudi officials temporally suspended the Umrah pilgrimage in Mecca and visits to the prophet’s mosque in the holy city of Medina, a step that was not even taken during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.

The news comes as the kingdom is working to limit the speared of the virus, which thus far has been reported in 1,563 individuals and has resulted in 10 deaths, according to the Saudi health ministry.

Saudi Arabia is scrambling to limit the spread of the disease at home. The kingdom’s health ministry has reported 1,563 coronavirus infections and 10 deaths from the illness so far.

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.

Saudi authorities are yet to announce whether they will proceed with this year’s hajj, scheduled for the end of July.

If the state calls off the pilgrimage, it could risk riling fringe Muslim hardliners, for whom religion trumps health considerations.