Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that because of the coronavirus only “very limited numbers” of people will be allowed to perform the annual hajj pilgrimage that traditionally draws around 2 million Muslims from around the world.
The decision comes after weeks of speculation over whether Saudi Arabia would cancel the pilgrimage altogether or allow the hajj to be held in symbolic numbers. It’s unclear why the government waited until just five weeks before the hajj to announce its decision, but the timing indicates the sensitivity around major decisions concerning the hajj that affect Muslims around the world.
Saudi kings have for generations assumed titles as custodians of Islam’s holiest sites, and their oversight of the hajj is a source of prestige and influence among Muslims globally. The hajj also generates around $6 billion in revenue for the government every year.
Saudi Arabia has never canceled the hajj in the nearly 90 years since the country was founded.
The government said its decision to drastically limit the number of pilgrims was aimed at preserving global public health due to the lack of a vaccine for the virus or a cure for those infected, as well as the risks associated with large gatherings of people.
The hajj is one of the biggest gatherings on earth, with pilgrims staying in close confines and walking and praying shoulder-to-shoulder. A stampede in 2015 caused more than 2,400 deaths.
“This decision was taken to ensure hajj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective,” the government statement said.
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The kingdom’s Ministry of Hajj said only people of various nationalities already residing in the country would be allowed to perform the large pilgrimage, which is set to begin this year at the end of July.
The government did not specify how many people would be permitted to take part.
The hajj centers around five intense days of worship and rituals in Mecca, however pilgrims typically begin arriving to Saudi Arabia through its main gateway city of Jiddah weeks and even months in advance.
Saudi Arabia said its “top priority is to always enable Muslim pilgrims to perform the hajj and umrah rites safely and securely.”