Saudi Arabia to restrict domestic haj pilgrims amid coronavirus fears

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Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Despite the crane accident on Friday, almost one million pilgrims have arrived as of Tuesday ahead of the hajj. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. /AP

Saudi Arabia is to limit the number of domestic pilgrims attending the haj to around 1,000 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, after barring Muslims abroad from the rite for the first year in modern times.

Haj minister Mohammed Benten told a news briefing on Tuesday that strict health criteria would be used to select eligible pilgrims among citizens and residents. Those above 65 years old would not be allowed to attend the annual pilgrimage, he said.

Some 2.5 million pilgrims typically visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long haj, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim.

Haj is due to start by the end of July.

Official data shows Saudi Arabia earns around $12 billion a year from the haj and the lesser, year-round pilgrimage known as umrah, which remains suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is keen to enable all Muslims of different nationalities to perform haj but the global health circumstances this year led us to make this haj an exception,” Benten said.

“Everyone knows the risks of this virus and knows that all countries are closed now and until haj time, and therefore there will be risks to transfer pilgrims across countries,” he said, adding that pilgrim safety was a priority for the kingdom.

Egypt’s top Sunni Muslim authority Al Azhar welcomed the move and said on Monday it supports Saudi Arabia’s “wise decision” to limit the number of pilgrims, adding preserving the lives of people is one of the top priorities of Islamic sharia.

Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 161,000 COVID-19 infections with over 1,300 deaths, following a rise in new cases in the past two weeks.

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