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Citing COVID-19, Saudi Arabia asks Muslims to put hajj plans on hold

Saudi Arabia wants Muslims to wait until there is more clarity about the COVID-19 pandemic before planning to attend the annual hajj pilgrimage, the minister for hajj and umrah said on state TV Tuesday.

Umrah pilgrimage already suspended and entry into Mecca barred

Muslim pilgrims walk around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on Feb. 27, 2020. The minister for hajj and umrah pilgrimages has asked Muslims to hold off on attending this year's hajj until there is more clarity on the COVID-19 pandemic. (Abdel Ghani Bashir/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia wants Muslims to wait until there is more clarity about the COVID-19 pandemic before planning to attend the annual hajj pilgrimage, the minister for hajj and umrah said on state TV Tuesday.

Some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world usually flock to the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the weeklong ritual, which is considered a mandatory duty for able-bodied Muslim at least once in their lifetime, as well as a major source of income for the kingdom.

The largest annual gathering of Muslims is scheduled to begin in late July, but the coronavirus outbreak has raised questions about whether it can — or should — go ahead, given the risk of spreading the disease further in large gatherings.

Saudi Arabia has already suspended the smaller, year-round umrah pilgrimage until further notice, halted all international passenger flights indefinitely and last week blocked entry and exit to several cities, including Mecca and Medina.

Muslim pilgrims wear masks at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on Feb. 28, 2020. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia suspended visas for visits to Islam's holiest sites for the umrah pilgrimage, an unprecedented move triggered by coronavirus fears. (AFP via Getty Images)

The kingdom has reported 10 deaths among 1,563 cases of COVID-19, which has spread to more than 800,000 people globally and killed more than 40,000, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.

Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia and the backbone of plans to expand visitor numbers under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious economic reform agenda.

Cancelling the hajj would be unprecedented in modern times, but curbing attendance from high-risk areas has happened before, including in recent years during the Ebola outbreak. 

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