Saudi Arabia: Hajj will see at most 'thousands' due to virus

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FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019 file photo taken with slow shutter speed, Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, durning the hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia says this years hajj will not be canceled, but that due to the coronavirus only very limited numbers of people will be allowed to perform the major Muslim pilgrimage. The kingdom said Monday, June 22, 2020 that only people of various nationalities already residing in the country would be allowed to perform the hajj.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

DUBAI – A Saudi official said Tuesday that the hajj pilgrimage, which usually draws up to 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world, will only see at the most a few thousand pilgrims next month due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

The kingdom's Hajj Minister Muhammad Benten said a “small and very limited” number of people — even as low as just 1,000 from inside the kingdom — will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage to ensure social distancing and crowd control amid the global virus outbreak.

“The number, God willing, may be in the thousands. We are in the process of reviewing so it could be 1,000 or less, or a little more,” Benten said in a virtual press conference.

While the decision to drastically curb this year’s hajj was largely expected, it remains unprecedented in Saudi Arabia’s nearly 90-year history and effectively bars all Muslims from outside the kingdom from travelling there to performing the pilgrimage.

The Saudi government waited until just five weeks before the hajj to announce its decision. The timing indicates the sensitivity around major decisions concerning the hajj that affect Muslims around the world.

“This is a very sensitive operation and we are working with experts at the Health Ministry,” Benten said, stressing the importance of protecting the lives and health of pilgrims.

As part of the curbs, Saudi officials said that no one over the age of 65 will be allowed to perform the hajj and that all pilgrims and those serving the pilgrims this year will be quarantined both before and after the pilgrimage.

Saudi Arabia first announced late on Monday that only a very limited number of pilgrims would be allowed to perform the hajj in Mecca from among residents of various nationalities already inside the kingdom.