Saudi Arabia on Saturday said that it would allow 60,000 residents vaccinated against COVID-19 to perform this year’s hajj, but Muslims from abroad would be barred for a second consecutive year.
The hajj — a requirement for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lives — typically packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites and could be a major source of contagion amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year it would be “open for nationals and residents of the kingdom, limited to 60,000 pilgrims,” the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said, quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The pilgrimage, scheduled to be held next month, would be limited to those who have been vaccinated and are aged 18 to 65 with no chronic illnesses, it said.
Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part in last year’s hajj, a far cry from the 2.5 million people who participated in the five-day 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 ministry said. “Considering the large crowds that perform hajj, spending long periods of time in multiple and specific places ... requires the highest levels of health precautions.”
Saudi Arabia said that those wishing to perform the hajj would need to apply online, without specifying how many foreign residents would be among the 60,000 pilgrims.
Last year, foreigners made up 70 percent of the pilgrims, while Saudis made up the rest.
The kingdom said that it had informed other countries of the decision not to allow pilgrims from abroad.
“There was great understanding,” Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah 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 Pakistani government said that it supported the decision, but there was disappointment among those hoping to make the hajj.
“I am profoundly saddened... I also wanted to go for hajj last year. I was desperately hoping to make it this year and even had got myself vaccinated along with my wife,” clothes merchant Zafar Ullah, 64, said.
Hajj Organisers Association of Pakistan tour operator Mohammad Shakeel said that the Saudi decision would “further add” to financial losses faced by his company.
Riyadh is accelerating a nationwide vaccination drive as it moves to revive tourism as well as host sports and entertainment events.
It has approved the BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines.
Last month, only inoculated or immunized citizens were allowed to travel abroad, after the kingdom lifted a ban on overseas trips introduced at the start of the pandemic.
The kingdom has said that from Aug. 1, vaccinations would be mandatory to enter government and private establishments, including education institutions and entertainment venues, as well as to use public transport.
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