23:32 GMT12 July 2020
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    Having dragged the world into a global recession, the COVID-19 outbreak has impacted people's spiritual lives as well: almost two million Muslim pilgrims won't be able to make a journey to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabian officials have explained that it was an uneasy decision.

    The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) will limit the number of pilgrims who can take part in the annual Hajj to the Islamic holy sites due to the coronavirus pandemic. To date, the monarchy has registered over 164,100 COVID cases and 1,346 virus-related deaths.

    'Number of Pilgrims Won't Surpass 10,000'

    On Monday, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that only those foreigners who are currently residing in Saudi Arabia will be able to make a pilgrimage between 28 July and 2 August this year.

    "The number of pilgrims this year will be very limited, and may not surpass 10,000. It will be internal Hajj, no exceptions will be made for pilgrims from abroad", Hajj and Umrah Minister Mohammed Saleh Bentin told journalists.

    He specified that pilgrims would be selected together with foreign diplomatic missions, adding that all of them would have to pass COVID-19 tests. After Hajj they will be quarantined for 14 days, while doctors will keep the worshippers' health in check during the pilgrimage with hospitals being deployed in the holy sites.

    Were it not for the pandemic, about 2.5 million people would have visited Mecca and Medina in the Gulf monarchy this summer.

    A Muslim pilgrim prays in front of the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017.
    © AP Photo / /Khalil Hamra
    A Muslim pilgrim prays in front of the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017.

    KSA Takes Necessary Measures to Ensure Pilgrims' Safety

    The head of the National Hajj and Umrah Commission in the Chamber of Commerce of Mecca, Saad bin Jamil al-Quraishy, admits that the kingdom has taken all the necessary measures to ensure the safety of believers and will set up fully-equipped field hospitals for them.

    "Moreover, the number of medical teams that will monitor the health of pilgrims will be increased", the Saudi official emphasises. "This will allow us to respond to the risk of spreading the infection as quickly as possible".

    He also specified that the kingdom's citizens above 65 will also be restricted from taking part in the Hajj this year due to the challenge posed by the COVID outbreak.

    "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also made an important decision with regard to self-isolation of all pilgrims after the end of the hajj for 14 days, preventing them from going outside and contacting anyone", Saad bin Jamil al-Quraishy underlines.

    It Was an Uneasy Decision

    Saudi officials reached the decision after much deliberation, explains Abdallah al-Sufyany, a member of the Culture and Tourism Committee of the Council, stressing that despite being criticised by some conservative circles the final version is the most optimal under the current circumstances.

    “We understood perfectly well that it is impossible to completely cancel Hajj", al-Sufyany highlights. "We cannot deprive all Muslims overnight of the opportunity to perform the ritual which is one of five pillars of Islam. However, it would be extremely irresponsible to completely ignore security measures. Yes, the decision was not easy, even painful - but at the moment this is the only way to keep the Hajj season within its normal framework and not to provoke a wave of diseases both in the kingdom and outside the KSA".

    Touching upon the mounting criticism over Riyadh's decision al-Sufyani remarks that the government "know[s] very well where this cacophony comes from".

    "One should not even listen to them - many of them intentionally disseminate destructive [ideas], and some are doing this unconsciously while living in their own illusions, and not in the real world. The main thing for us is that most [Saudi] citizens supported the decision, and the representatives of the Muslim world have understood and accepted it", the official emphasises.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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