There is increasing speculation that this year’s Hajj could be cancelled after Saudi Arabia asked Muslims to delay booking amid uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic.
Hajj Minister Mohammed Banten said the Kingdom was concerned about the safety of pilgrims and urged people to “wait before concluding contracts.”
“Saudi Arabia is fully ready to serve pilgrims and Umrah seekers in all circumstances,” Mr Banten told state TV. “But under the current circumstances, as we are talking about the global pandemic, from which we have asked God to save us, the kingdom is keen to protect the health of Muslims and citizens.
“So we have asked our brother Muslims in all countries to wait before concluding contracts [with tour operators] until the situation is clear.”
The minister also said that, for the time being, people who had purchased Umrah visas that could not be used would be refunded the cost.
Some two million plus people were expected to travel to Makkah and Medina this July and August for the annual pilgrimage.
Umrah has already been suspended as a precaution to try to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, and the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Medinah are currently closed.
People are also being prevented from entering Makkah and Medinah, as well as the capital Riyadh, as the Saudi authorities attempt to contain an outbreak of COVID-19.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s health ministry announced 429 new coronavirus cases and seven more deaths. The tally of COVID-19 cases in the Kingdom has reached 4,462, with 59 deaths, the ministry said. Some 761 cases have recovered.
The ministry said there are more than 40,000 people who are self-isolating at home in Saudi Arabia. And it warned young people not to underestimate coronavirus, saying even youths can get infected.
Hajj has been cancelled almost 40 times over the centuries and in recent history plagues and epidemics have been the major cause.
A plague from India hit Makkah in 1831 and killed three-quarters of the pilgrims there.
Between 1837-1858 there was a series of epidemics which halted the Hajj three times, leaving pilgrims unable to head to Makkah for a total of seven years.
In 1846 a bout of cholera hit Makkah killing more than 15,000 people, and plagued its inhabitants until 1850. Outbreaks returned in 1865 and 1883.
In 1858, another global cholera pandemic arrived in the holy city, prompting Egyptian pilgrims to run away en masse to Egypt’s Red Sea shores, where they were held in quarantine.