Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic that has effected the entire world, Saudi Arabia recently made the decision of temporarily banning its citizens and foreign residents from performing Umrah. The ban has bred fear in Muslims as they believe it will also impact the annual Haj pilgrimage.
The ban was implemented in order to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus, that has hit several countries across the world. The kingdom said the Umrah suspension is temporary and “subject to regular review”.
Suspending Umrah is not the only measure the kingdom has taken to battle the coronavirus.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia temporarily closed Mecca’s Grand Mosque, so no prayers could be conducted in Islam’s holiest site. Though the mosque has partially reopened, worshippers are forbidden from touching the sacred Kabaa at its centre.
Meanwhile, flight and travel bans from dozens of countries have been put in place by authorities, the eastern Qatif province has been locked down, schools shut and cultural and sporting events cancelled.
A fine of up to 500,000 riyals ($133,000) can be imposed on people who have not disclosed adequate health information on entry.
A travel agent in East Jerusalem, who wished to remain anonymous, believes questions remain about the fate of this year’s Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
“The issue of Hajj was not discussed during talks with Hajj and Umrah officials in Saudi Arabia. No one would like to think that the Hajj will be cancelled because of the coronavirus epidemic,” he said.
Though Hajj has been cancelled several times over the centuries, since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s foundation in 1932 it has never missed a year.
Umrah can be performed at any time of the year, though the popular season for pilgrims begins two months before Ramadan and peaks during the holy month.
Saudi Arabia distributes Hajj visas to countries corresponding to the size of their Muslim population. Around 5,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are allowed entry every year.
“We are not expecting Hajj’s cancellation because people wait for it from year to year, and if it happened it will be a catastrophe.”, a Saudi official said.
So far, there is no indication when Saudi Arabia will lift its travel bans and resume receiving Umrah pilgrims.