Muslims disappointed but accepting as Saudi scales back hajj

The hajj last year drew about 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world

Muslims expressed disappointment Tuesday at Saudi Arabia's decision to scale back this year's hajj pilgrimage, but many accepted it was necessary as the kingdom battles a major coronavirus outbreak.

Around 1,000 people residing in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to perform Islam's main pilgrimage this year, authorities said -- compared to some 2.5 million from around the world last year.

The move had looked inevitable for some time and several countries had already pulled out, but the announcement added to disappointment of Muslims, many of whom invest huge sums and wait years to perform the rite.

"My hopes of going to (the holy Saudi 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 hajj earlier this month.

"I've been preparing for years. But what can I do? This is Allah's will -- it's destiny."

Shahid Rafique, chairman of a Pakistani hajj tour operators' group, said it was "a moment of sorrow for all the Muslims, especially for those who were making plans for years and years".

"Professionally, it is a big loss for us, for all the private hajj organisers, and we may not be able to recover from this loss for many years," he said.

But in Iran, where authorities are battling the Middle East's deadliest COVID-19 outbreak, many backed the decision.

Retired public transport worker Abdollah Pouyan pointed to an upswing in cases and deaths from the disease in the Islamic Republic in recent weeks, saying "this is all because of large gatherings".

"When it gets really busy, when there are so many people there, can they really control the situation or maintain social distancing?" he asked.

"Overall, this is for the benefit of everyone."

Worshippers at a mosque in Tunis also approved of a move by Tunisian authorities to postpone the hajj in line with the Saudi decision.

"God willing, it'll be for next year... These are exceptional conditions and it's also for their protection," worshipper Mohamed-Amine said.

- 'Shattered' -

In Bangladesh, the head of a hajj travel agencies' group said many people would be "shattered" by the decision, but accepted it was for the best.

"Unlike other countries, the majority of Bangladeshi pilgrims are elderly people, and they are vulnerable to COVID-19," Shahadat Hossain Taslim said.

India's minister for minority affairs said more than 200,000 people from the country had applied to go on the five-day event, scheduled for the end of July, and they would receive a full refund of any money deposited for the pilgrimage.

A requirement for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, the hajj pilgrimage sees millions of people pack into congested religious sites.

Many feared it could have become a major source of virus transmission.

Saudi citizen Yazeed Daajani told AFP more "precautions and organisation" were in place for this year's hajj than in previous years.

Officials in the kingdom, where virus cases have surpassed 161,000, say the pilgrimage will be limited to those below 65 years of age and with no chronic illnesses.

Pilgrims will be tested for the virus before arriving in Mecca, and will be required to quarantine at home afterwards, they said.

But some Muslims had opposed moves to shut down the event altogether.

"The hajj is one of the rituals of Islam, so there's no reason for cancelling or postponing it," said Ahmed al-Khoury, 29, a Jordanian living in Riyadh.

"There are precautions that can be followed to stem the spread of the virus, whether it's during the hajj or during any other rituals of Islam."

- 'Collective decision' -

The decision has prompted renewed questions about Saudi Arabia's custodianship of Islam's holiest sites -- the kingdom's most powerful source of political legitimacy.

A series of deadly disasters including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers have seen the kingdom criticised over its management of the hajj.

Mohamad Azmi Abdul Hamid, from the Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organizations, said Muslim nations should have been allowed to take a "collective decision", rather than leaving it to Riyadh.

"It's high time (Mecca and Medina) are managed by an international board represented by Muslim countries," he told AFP.

The decision also risks annoying hardline Muslims for whom religion trumps health concerns.

But others, like Yahya in Indonesia, are looking to the future in hopes of performing the pilgrimage in 2021.

"I'm still hoping to go on hajj next year, and pray that I'll stay healthy until then," Yahya said.

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The hajj last year drew about 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world