Hajj pilgrimage could be cancelled because of coronavirus

Saudi authorities pave way for first closure of annual Islamic event in Mecca since 1798

Retrictions in place around the Ka’bah at the heart of the Grand Mosque in Mecca last month. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

The biggest occasion in the Islamic calendar, the annual hajj pilgrimage, has become the latest global event to be jeopardised by coronavirus, with Saudi authorities suggesting travellers delay plans to visit Mecca in late July.

The comments have been widely interpreted as clearing the ground for a cancellation of this year’s event, a rare occurrence in modern history: the last such closure took place more than 200 years ago.

Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities that are hubs of the pilgrimage, have both been in effect closed to visitors for the past month, a step that was not taken during the 1918 flu pandemic. Saudi officials have sealed the country’s borders to foreigners and imposed widespread restrictions on movement inside the kingdom, partly in the hope of eradicating the disease before the hajj.

Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Europe, Middle East and North Africa

Guardian graphic. Sources:Johns Hopkins CSSE, WHO, CDC, NHC and Dingxiangyuan

However, with the virus swirling around the world, modelling suggesting it could take many more months to be contained and global aviation having almost ground to a halt, there seems no viable scenario in which such a mass movement of pilgrims could be hosted in late July.

Saudi Arabia has recorded about 1,500 cases of coronavirus and 10 deaths. There have been almost 72,000 cases in the Middle East, many of which have stemmed from the region’s biggest outbreak, in the Iranian city of Qom.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all Muslims and nationals,” the Saudi hajj and umrah minister, Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Banten, told state television on Wednesday. “That’s why we have requested from all Muslims around the world to hold onto signing any agreements until we have a clear vision.”

The hajj, the annual timing of which is dictated by the lunar calendar, is last thought to have been cancelled in 1798. It has not gone ahead on about 40 other occasions because of disease and conflict. The looming cancellation this year has led some observers to suggest an end-of-days prophecy was drawing near.

“Saudi authorities appear to be psychologically preparing people for the possibility that the hajj might have to be cancelled,” said Shiraz Maher, a lecturer in war studies at King’s College London. “They’ve started pointing out historical instances from the past where the hajj had to be suspended for various reasons, including calamity and war. I think this is part of a broader attempt to reassure people that if it happens, it’s not entirely unprecedented.

“There are prophecies that say one of the signs of the day of judgment is the abandonment of the hajj. Some are saying a cancellation due to coronavirus is a marker that the end of days is drawing nearer.

“Others say the term ‘abandonment’ in this context means when people lose the desire to perform the hajj, which is not the case right now. So you have conflicting messages of despair and optimism, depending on how you interpret the prophecy.”

The Islamic faith requires all able Muslims to perform the ritual once in their lifetime. It is seen as a purifying period in a worshipper’s life. Saudi Arabia draws much of its global legitimacy from protecting the two holy shrines and hosting the annual event, which draws up to 3 million pilgrims each year to the two sprawling sites in the south of the country.

In addition to the possible cancellation, the Tokyo Olympics, also scheduled for July, have been delayed by 12 months and an axe is hanging over this year’s Wimbledon tournament, which is set for late May. Formula One grands prix in Bahrain and Monaco have also been scrapped, while football competitions across Europe have been put on ice.

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