Saudi Arabia to allow around 1,000 local pilgrims to perform haj

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KUALA LUMPUR: Muslims expressed disappointment yesterday at Saudi Arabia's decision to scale back this year's haj pilgrimage, but many accepted it was necessary as it battles the coronavirus outbreak.

Saudi Arabia will allow around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom to perform the haj this year, a minister said yesterday, after it announced the ritual would be scaled back.

It marks the first time in modern Saudi history that foreign visitors have been barred.

A group representing about 250 companies in Indonesia that organise Saudi pilgrimages said it understood that the five-day event, scheduled for the end of July, would be "too risky".

But Mr Syam Resfiadi, chairman of the Union of Haj and Umrah Organisers, told AFP some of his group's members had "started laying off employees or even shutting down their operations - they've had no income for months".

A must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, the pilgrimage sees millions of people pack into congested religious sites and could have become a major source of virus transmission.

Mr Shahadat Hossain Taslim, head of a group representing Bangladeshi haj travel agencies, said "many people will be shattered" but it was for the best.

"The majority of Bangladeshi pilgrims are elderly people, and they are vulnerable to Covid-19," he said.

But Mr Mohamad Azmi Abdul Hamid, from charity the Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organisations, said Muslim nations should have been allowed to take a "collective decision", rather then it being left to Riyadh.

"It's high time (the holy cities of Mecca and Medina) are managed by an international board represented by Muslim countries," he told AFP.

Malaysia yesterday recorded three new Covid-19 cases, taking the total number of infections in the country to 8,590. The death toll remains unchanged at 121.

Indonesia reported 1,051 new cases yesterday, taking its total to 47,896. There were 35 more deaths reported, with total fatalities now at 2,535.

The Philippine reported 1,150 additional cases, the country's biggest single-day increase. Total cases have reached 31,825 while deaths have increased by nine to 1,186. - AFP, THE STAR, REUTERS