Malaysia bars citizens from haj pilgrimage on coronavirus fears

FILE PHOTO: Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba and pray at the Grand mosque at the end of their Haj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 13, 2019. Picture taken August 13, 2019. REUTERSUmit Bektas/File Photo

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia said on Thursday its citizens would be barred from making the haj pilgrimage this year due to concerns over the new coronavirus, following in the steps of neighbouring Indonesia, which is also a Muslim-majority nation.

Every year Malaysia sends tens of thousands of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Malaysian pilgrims can wait up to 20 years to make the trip due to a quota system negotiated with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has suspended the haj and umrah pilgrimages until further notice in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, though it has begun easing some restrictions on movement and travel.

Malaysia decided to bar citizens from making the haj this year due to the risks of contracting COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, and the lack of a vaccine to treat it, said Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri.

“I hope the pilgrims continue to be patient and accept the decision,” Zulkifli told a new conference broadcast on national television.

In a separate statement, the Tabung Haji board - which manages savings plans for prospective pilgrims - said the decision would affect around 31,600 people selected to make the trip this year.

Malaysia has reported 8,369 new coronavirus cases so far, with 118 fatalities.

Last week Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, announced the cancellation of the haj for up to 221,000 pilgrims this year.

Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Gareth Jones