Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia urges Muslims to defer their Hajj preparations

About 2.5 million attended the pilgrimage last year

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Saudi Arabia's Hajj Minister on Tuesday asked the more than 2 million Muslims intending to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage to temporarily defer preparations amid uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, the kingdom suspended the year-round Umrah pilgrimages over fears of the new coronavirus spreading to Islam's holiest cities - a step which wasn’t taken even during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.

Since then, the kingdom has stepped up measures to stop the spread of the now 1,500 cases and closed off major cities, banned flights into or out of the country and quarantined entire districts.

Saudi Arabia urges Muslims to defer Hajj preparations

Saudi Arabia urges Muslims to defer Hajj preparations

Closing off the grand mosque in Makkah was, however, an unprecedented move that raised uncertainty over the annual Hajj.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all Muslims and nationals,” Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Mohammad Benten told state television.

"But under the current circumstances, as we are talking about the global pandemic, the kingdom is keen to protect the health of Muslims and citizens and so we have asked our brother Muslims in all countries to wait before doing [Hajj tour] contracts until the situation is clear,’ he said.

He spoke as the sound of crickets echoed in the background late on Tuesday night at the Grand Mosque of Makkah, which normally draws thousands of worshippers throughout the day and night, circling it and praying toward it.

Saudi authorities are yet to announce whether they will proceed with this year's Hajj, expected to be at the end of July.

About 2.5 million people flocked to the pilgrimage last year but many fear it could be a major source of contagion as worshippers pack in religious sites.

Standing in Makkah in front of the cube-shaped Kaaba that Muslims pray toward five times daily, Mr Banten also said the kingdom was already providing care for 1,200 pilgrims stuck in the holy city due to global travel restrictions.

A number of them are being quarantined in hotels in Makkah, he said.

In March, Saudi Arabia suspended prayers inside all of its mosques except the major holy sites in Makkah and Madinah as it increased efforts to contain the new coronavirus.

In both sites, teams have stepped up sterilisation and cleaning programmes.

Saudi Arabia has reported 1,563 coronavirus infections and 10 deaths from the illness so far.