June 23, 2020 / 9:51 AM / 13 days ago

Saudi Arabia to restrict domestic haj pilgrims amid coronavirus fears

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is to limit the number of domestic pilgrims attending the haj to around 1,000 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, after barring Muslims abroad from the rite for the first year in modern times.

Haj minister Mohammed Benten told a news briefing on Tuesday that strict health criteria would be used to select eligible pilgrims among citizens and residents. Those above 65 years old would not be allowed to attend the annual pilgrimage, he said.

Some 2.5 million pilgrims typically visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long haj, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim.

Haj is due to start by the end of July.

Official data shows Saudi Arabia earns around $12 billion a year from the haj and the lesser, year-round pilgrimage known as umrah, which remains suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is keen to enable all Muslims of different nationalities to perform haj but the global health circumstances this year led us to make this haj an exception,” Benten said.

“Everyone knows the risks of this virus and knows that all countries are closed now and until haj time, and therefore there will be risks to transfer pilgrims across countries,” he said, adding that pilgrim safety was a priority for the kingdom.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi security officers stand in front of the Kaaba, as muslims pray during the Laylat al-Qadr, or Night of Power, the holiest night for Muslims, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during the fasting month of Ramadan, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia May 19, 2020. Saudi Press Agency/Handout via REUTERS

Egypt’s top Sunni Muslim authority Al Azhar welcomed the move and said on Monday it supports Saudi Arabia’s “wise decision” to limit the number of pilgrims, adding preserving the lives of people is one of the top priorities of Islamic sharia.

Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 161,000 COVID-19 infections with over 1,300 deaths, following a rise in new cases in the past two weeks.

Saudi health minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah told the conference that all workers at haj sites would be tested and that a specialised hospital has been prepared to handle emergencies.

Reporting by Marwa Rashad, Additional reporting by Mahmoud Mourad in Cairo; editing by Ed Osmond

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