RIYADH: Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday it would allow 60,000 residents vaccinated against Covid-19 to perform this year’s Haj, but Muslims from abroad would be barred for a second straight year.

The Haj typically packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites and could be a major source of contagion amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This year it would be “open for nationals and residents of the kingdom, limited to 60,000 pilgrims”, the Haj ministry said, quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The pilgrimage, scheduled to be held in July, would be limited to those who have been vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, it said.

Pakistan supports decision made due to Covid-19

Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part in the Haj last year, a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated in the annual pilgrimage in 2019 before the pandemic.

“In light of what the whole world is witnessing with the coronavirus pandemic... and the emergence of new variants, the relevant authorities have continued to monitor the global health situation,” the health ministry said.

“Considering the large crowds that perform Haj, spending long periods of time in multiple and specific places... requires the highest levels of health precautions.”

Saudi Arabia said those wishing to perform Haj would have to apply online, without specifying how many foreign residents would be among the 60,000 pilgrims.

In 2020, foreigners were 70 per cent of the pilgrims, while Saudis made up the rest.

The kingdom said later that it had informed other countries of the decision not to allow pilgrims from abroad.

“There was great understanding,” Deputy Haj Minister Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat told a news conference. “Arrangements for this were based on the kingdom’s keenness on the pilgrims’ health and the safety of their countries.”

The kingdom has also said that from August 1, vaccinations would be mandatory to enter government and private establishments, including education institutions and entertainment venues, as well as to use public transport.

In a relaxation of coronavirus curbs last October, Saudi Arabia opened the Grand Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months and partially resumed the all-year-round Umrah pilgrimage.

The limit on Umrah pilgrims is 20,000 a day, with a total of 60,000 worshippers allowed to perform daily prayers at the mosque.

Authorities said Umrah — which usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe — would be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 460,000 coronavirus infections, including 7,537 deaths.

More than 15m coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34m people.

Pakistan supports move

Pakistan has expressed support for the restriction imposed on this year’s Haj by the Saudi government.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud called his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi to inform him about the Hajj restriction.

The Foreign Office, in a statement issued in Islamabad, said Foreign Minister Al Saud told Mr Qureshi about the “challenges of organising Haj in 2021 and the policy measures taken by the Kingdom in the larger interest of public health”.

Mr Qureshi, the readout said, told Mr Al Saud that he understood the situation. The FO said the foreign minister “expressed confidence in the decisions taken in public interest by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”.

The two foreign ministers also reviewed the outcomes of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and agreed to work together towards early and effective implementation of decisions taken by the leadership of the two countries, the FO said.

They “also discussed bilateral cooperation in various fields, as well as the two countries’ cooperation in multilateral organisations”, besides exchanging views on global and regional issues of mutual interest, it added.

Mr Qureshi, during the conversation, reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for sovereignty and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia.

Baqir Sajjad Syed from Islamabad also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2021

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