Saudi to hold 'very limited' hajj over coronavirus fears
The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, represents a major potential source of contagion as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.
But the decision to scale back the hajj, which last year drew 2.5 million pilgrims, is fraught with political and economic peril and comes after several Muslim nations pulled out of the ritual.
The kingdom's hajj ministry said the pilgrimage will be open to various nationalities already in Saudi Arabia, but it did not specify a number.
"It was decided to hold the pilgrimage this year with very limited numbers... with different nationalities in the kingdom," the official Saudi Press Agency said, citing the ministry.
"This decision is taken to ensure the hajj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective... and in accordance with the teachings of Islam in preserving lives."
The decision to limit the event comes as Saudi Arabia struggles to contain a spike in infections, which have now risen to some 161,000 cases and more than 1,300 deaths.
The announcement to hold a limited hajj could disappoint millions of Muslim pilgrims around the world who often invest their life savings and endure long waiting lists to make the trip.
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But it would likely appease Muslims who feared the pilgrimage would entirely be cancelled for the first time in the kingdom's modern history.
"Saudi Arabia has chosen the safest option that allows it to save face within the Muslim world while making sure they are not seen as compromising on public health," Umar Karim, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told AFP.
"But there are lots of unanswered questions: What is the exact number of pilgrims that will be allowed? What is the criteria for their selection? How many Saudis, how many non-Saudis?"
Saudi authorities said the hajj ministry will hold a news conference on Tuesday to flesh out the details.