MECCA: Saudi Arabia is expected to scale back or call off this year’s Hajj pilgrimage for the first time in its modern history, observers say, a perilous decision as coronavirus cases spike.
Muslim nations are pressing Riyadh to give its much-delayed decision on whether the annual ritual will go ahead as scheduled in late July.
But as the Kingdom negotiates a call fraught with political and economic risks in a tinderbox region, time is running out to organise logistics for one of the world’s largest mass gatherings. A full-scale Hajj, which last year drew about 2.5 million pilgrims, appears increasingly unlikely after authorities advised Muslims in late March to defer preparations due to the fast-spreading disease.
“It’s a toss-up between holding a nominal Hajj and scrapping it entirely,” a South Asian official in contact with Saudi Hajj authorities told AFP.
A Saudi official told AFP: “The decision will soon be made and announced.”
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, withdrew from the pilgrimage this month after pressing Riyadh for clarity, with a minister calling it a “very bitter and difficult decision”. Malaysia, Senegal and Singapore followed suit with similar announcements.
Many other countries with Muslim populations — from Egypt and Morocco to Turkey, Lebanon and Bulgaria — have said they are still awaiting Riyadh’s decision.
In countries like France, faith leaders have urged Muslims to “postpone” their pilgrimage plans until next year due to the prevailing risks.
The Hajj, 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 any decision to limit or cancel the event risks annoying Muslim worshippers who attach significant importance to the annual pilgrimage. 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 Hajj.