Saudi Arabia will allow around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom to perform Haj this year, a minister said on Tuesday, after it announced the ritual would be scaled back due to coronavirus.
“The number of pilgrims will be around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more,” Haj Minister Mohammad Benten told reporters.
“The number won't be in tens or hundreds of thousands” this year, he added.
The pilgrimage, scheduled for the end of July, will be limited to those below 65 years of age and with no chronic illnesses, Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said.
The pilgrims will be tested for coronavirus before arriving in the holy city of Makkah and will be required to quarantine at home after the ritual, Rabiah added.
Saudi Arabia announced on Monday it would hold a “very limited” Haj this year, as it moves to curb the biggest coronavirus outbreak in the Gulf.
It said the ritual will be open to people of various nationalities already in the kingdom.
The decision marks the first time in Saudi Arabia's modern history that Muslims outside the kingdom have been barred from performing Haj, which last year drew 2.5 million pilgrims.
Benten did not specify how the pilgrims will be selected. But he said the government will work with various diplomatic missions in the kingdom to select foreign pilgrims residing in Saudi Arabia who fit the health criteria.
The annual Haj typically packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites and could be a major source of contagion.
The decision comes as Saudi Arabia grapples with a major spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 161,000 cases — the highest in the Gulf — with more than 1,300 deaths.
But the move to scale back the five-day event is fraught with political and economic peril and comes after several Muslim countries pulled out of the ritual that forms one of the main pillars of Islam.
Muslims disappointed, but accepting
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.
"My hopes of going to (the holy Saudi city of Makkah) 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."
Shahid Rafique, chairman of a Pakistani Haj 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 Haj organisers and we may not be able to recover from this loss for many years,” he said.
In Bangladesh, head of a Haj travel agencies' group, Shahadat Hossain Taslim, said that "many people will 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," he said.