Indonesia is cancelling this year’s Hajj pilgrimage for more than 200,000 of its citizens because of uncertainty over whether Saudi Arabia would allow pilgrims into its territory due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced on Tuesday.
This year’s pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the main obligations of people who practice Islam worldwide, is due in late July. However, the kingdom has not announced whether it would go ahead with hosting millions of Muslims from other countries who plan to undertake the religious journey, officials said.
“The government of Saudi Arabia has not given access to pilgrims from any country. As a result, the government does not have enough time to prepare, especially in the service and protection of pilgrims,” Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi told an online press conference.
The cancellation marks the first time that Indonesian Muslims will not be performing the Hajj since 1946-48, when the country was fighting Dutch colonizers after proclaiming its independence in 1945. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, has an annual Hajj quota of 221,000 pilgrims.
With the peak of the Hajj expected to fall on July 30-31, the first batch of Indonesian pilgrims would have had to depart for Saudi Arabia on June 26, Fachrul said.
The government also needed more time to apply health protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he said.
“Under this scenario, the Hajj time span will be longer because there are additional quarantine periods of 14 days before departure, after arriving (in Saudi), and after arriving back home,” the minister said.
“Based on this fact, the government has decided not to send pilgrims for 2020. Pilgrims who have paid the costs this year will make the trip in 2021,” he said.
The decision applied to all would-be pilgrims, including those travelling at the invitation of the Saudi government, he added.
“This is a difficult decision, but we believe it’s the most appropriate and most beneficial for all of us,” Fachrul said.
Nizar Ali, the director general of the Hajj and Umrah office at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, urged Indonesians to comply with the decision, and warned that those who went ahead with the trip despite this could face a fine of up to 8 million rupiah (U.S. $557) under the 2019 Hajj law.
“This decision has been taken because the COVID-19 pandemic has not subsided,” Nizar told the online the press conference.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia began the gradual reopening of the Nabawi mosque in the holy city of Medina, more than two months after it was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Great Mosque of Mecca, the other Saudi holy city, remains closed.
Since late February, Riyadh has suspended the Umrah – also known as the minor pilgrimage to Mecca – because of the Saudi government’s concerns about containing the spread of the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus among large crowds of pilgrims who were expected to arrive from abroad.
Thousands of Indonesian pilgrims were stranded at airports in the country on Feb. 27 after Saudi Arabia announced that it would block foreigners from travelling to Islam’s holiest sites to perform Umrah.
On Tuesday, Indonesia recorded 609 new coronavirus cases, bringing the national tally to 27,549, the country’s COVID-19 task force spokesman Achmad Yurianto said. The death toll rose to 1,663, after 22 additional deaths from the virus were reported overnight.
In Saudi Arabia, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia stood at more than 89,000 as of Tuesday, with around 550 fatalities recorded, according the latest data gathered by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
‘Hope I can make it next year’
A would-be Indonesian pilgrim who was due to travel to Saudi Arabia this year, Zulherjal, said he accepted the government’s decision, even though he had waited for 11 years to undertake the Hajj.
“I’m just resigned to it because the situation is making it impossible. I hope I can make it next year,” Zulherjal, who lives in Padang, in West Sumatra province, told BenarNews.
The average waiting time for the Hajj in Indonesia is 20 years.
Meanwhile, the chairperson of the Association of Hajj and Umrah Travel Organizers, Joko Asmoro, said his group supported the government’s decision.
“The government must prioritize the safety of pilgrims,” Joko said in a statement.
The secretary general of the Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization, Abdul Mu’ti, urged Muslims to accept the cancellation.
“The decision is in accordance with sharia because the pilgrimage is required only if it is safe, in addition to the pilgrims being physically and economically able,” Abdul told BenarNews.