Southeast and South Asian nations scrambled to provide answers to their Muslim citizens Thursday after Saudi Arabia blocked foreigners from travelling to Islam’s holiest sites just months ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, as transmissions of the coronavirus soared in the Middle East with Iran confirming 245 infections and 26 deaths.
Riyadh on Thursday suspended visas for the minor “Umrah” pilgrimage as it also closed its borders to foreigners visiting Mecca during Hajj and the Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam, in an extraordinary move that left tens of thousands of pilgrims in limbo at airports worldwide, including those from Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, requested an exemption for its citizens as it underscored that Jakarta had not yet recorded any confirmed case of the deadly flu-like disease known as COVID-19 on its soil.
“We are negotiating, so that those who are already there can perform ‘Umrah’ and those who have not come will not be barred,” Indonesian Vice President Ma’ruf Amin told reporters, emphasizing that Jakarta had already urged Saudi authorities to exempt Indonesians from the entry ban.
Umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of the year, attracts millions of visitors to Saudi Arabia. Millions more attend the 10-day Hajj, which is based on the Islamic lunar calendar and scheduled for late July into early August this year.
About one million Indonesians travel to Saudi Arabia each year to perform Umrah, officials said.
“I don’t think Umrah should be stopped. Even if it’s temporary, we hope Indonesia is exempted. If the reason is the coronavirus, we have no cases,” Ma’ruf said.
Saudi Arabia’s decision indicates the level of concern about the outbreak potentially striking the oil-rich kingdom tasked with protecting Islam’s holiest sites.
“Entry to the Kingdom for the purpose of Umrah and or visiting the Prophet's Mosque in Medina is temporarily suspended,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement posted on its website.
It said tourist visas of visitors “from countries with confirmed coronavirus outbreaks” had been temporarily suspended.
The statement did not provide a timeframe for when the suspension would be lifted.
There have been no confirmed cases of the virus in Saudi Arabia, according to authorities in Riyadh, although newspaper reports said at least five of its citizens in Kuwait and Bahrain had been infected after visiting Iran, the hardest-hit nation in the Middle East.
In Indonesia, Riyadh’s decision thrust pilgrims under a cloud of confusion, and travel operators expressed concerns that their customers may be sent back upon landing in Saudi Arabia.
Almost 7,000 Indonesians were stranded at local airports on Thursday, said Ali Machzumi, chief of “Umrah” affairs at the Religious Affairs Ministry.
About 4,000 other pilgrims were scheduled to leave for Saudi Arabia from other Indonesian cities such as Surabaya, Bandung and Makassar on Thursday, Ali said, adding that planes carrying nearly 1,200 had already departed on the same day.
“But it’s not clear because they are likely to be returned as they are now in transit in Dubai and Malaysia,” he told BenarNews.
At Jakarta’s international airport alone, more than 2,700 people were about to board flights when they were told they had been cancelled, he said.
At the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, more than 100 Malaysian and Indonesian pilgrims could be seen roaming around the pre-departure lounge on Thursday after Saudi announced its decision, according to state-run news service Bernama.
Malaysian travel agencies urged the Malaysian king to intervene over the temporary suspension.
“I appeal to His Majesty to hold discussions with Saudi Arabia’s King, King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud, to reconsider the suspension of visas for umrah,” Mohd Akil Mohd Yusof, deputy president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
Mohd Akil said around 270,000 Malaysians visited Saudi Arabia last year for Umrah.
In Bangladesh, pilgrims grappled with anxieties after officials of airline companies said that they had received directives from the Saudi foreign ministry not to carry passengers with pilgrimage visas.
M. Shahadat Hossain Taslim, president of Hajj Agency Association Bangladesh, told the Daily Star that almost 1,000 Bangladeshis were “stranded” at the three airports in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet after they were prevented from boarding flights for Saudi Arabia.
Three days before Riyadh issued its decision, Bangladesh’s cabinet secretary Khandker Awarul Islam told reporters that 137,198 pilgrims had signed up for the annual Hajj.
Since authorities reported that the virus had jumped from its epicenter in China, Kuwait has recorded 43 cases – all involving people who had been to Iran – while the United Arab Emirates has reported 13 and Bahrain has 33, according to the World Health Organization’s latest tally of infections.
Iran has emerged as a major hotspot in the Middle East, authorities said, with the highest death toll outside China at 26.
Iraj Harirchi, the head of Iran’s government task force on the coronavirus, who had earlier urged the public on national television not to overreact about the virus’ spread had himself tested positive for the illness.
Almost 2.5 Muslims from across the globe visited Saudi Arabia last year, according to authorities in Riyadh.
Disease outbreaks have taken place during the Hajj, including cholera in 1821, during which an estimated 20,000 pilgrims died. About 44 years later, about 15,000 worshipers also lost their lives during cholera outbreak that was also spread worldwide, health authorities said.
Passengers seek government intervention
Back in Indonesia, would-be pilgrim Ade Suherman, 68, and his wife received the news about Saudi Arabia’s decision while they were about to board their planes at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport.
“We’ve had out bags collected and are already inside. We are still waiting for news from the travel agency,” Ade told BenarNews.
Other Muslim worshipers hope that the Indonesian government could intervene.
“I hope the government will help us,” said 62-year-old Nur Hayati, a pilgrim from Cirebon in West Java province. “We have been certified healthy and ready to go.”
Bram Riza Nurulhuda, a 41-year-old pilgrim who had been in Medina since Tuesday, vowed to complete his pilgrimage.
“Here I am doing the morning prayer at the Nabawi Mosque. It is business as usual and there has been no clear action from local authorities,” he told BenarNews. “On Friday, God willing, I will go to Mecca.”
Up to 60,000 pilgrims from Indonesia had been scheduled to depart to Saudi in the next two weeks, according to Syam Resfiadi, chairman of the Association of Umrah and Hajj Organizers (Sapuhi).
Ronna Nirmala and Ami Afriatni in Jakarta contributed to this report.