Indonesia seeks Saudi help over suspension of entry for Umrah pilgrimage

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s foreign minister on Thursday urged Saudi Arabia to allow its citizens to continue their Umrah pilgrimage after hundreds were stranded at Jakarta airport when the kingdom suspended foreign entry for the Umrah over coronavirus concerns.

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Indonesia is the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country and it often sends around 1 million people on the Umrah pilgrimage every year in the kingdom, which hosts the two holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina.

The Saudi ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement that the suspensions were temporary but provided no timeframe for their expiry. It was unclear if the haj pilgrimage, which is scheduled to begin in late July, would be impacted.

“The immediacy of this will impact our citizens because at the time of the announcement, there are Indonesian citizens or maybe citizens of other countries who have flown there,” Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, told reporters on Thursday.

The government was trying to convince the Saudi authorities to allow the Indonesians already there to complete their pilgrimage.

More than 1,100 pilgrims had left for Saudi Arabia on Thursday from Jakarta’s airport, CNN Indonesia cited an official at Indonesia’s religious ministry as saying, while around 1,500 had been asked to postpone their trips.

TV footage showed hundreds of pilgrims, some dressed in uniforms provided by travel agents, stranded at Jakarta’s airport.

Joko Asmoro of the Association of Muslim Haj and Umrah Organizers, told Reuters that 150,000 to 200,000 pilgrims could be impacted by the suspension over the next month.

Asmoro said organizers would reschedule flights for the pilgrims “until the Saudi government opens Umrah again.”

Saudi Arabia normally welcomes millions of Muslim visitors throughout the year, with a peak for the haj pilgrimage. It introduced a new tourism visa last October for 49 countries.

The country has had no cases of the coronavirus, but it has been spreading in some neighboring countries. Indonesia also has not recorded any cases.

President Joko Widodo said he respected the kingdom’s decision because “everything health-related is the Saudi government’s number one policy”.

But for many Indonesians preparing for the pilgrimage the news is potentially devastating.

Fitri Nur Arifenie, who is due to take part in the Umrah on March 23, said she was now worried her trip would be canceled.

“It’s heartbreaking because everything’s on schedule. I have long desired to go on the Umrah,” said Arifenie, who works for Korean trade promotion agency.

“But what can you do? It’s for the good of others.”

Reporting by Maikel Jefriando, Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Wilda Asmarini; Writing by Stanley Widianto; Editing by Ed Davies and Hugh Lawson