Saudi Arabia has urged more than a million Muslims throughout the world to delay their plans of performing the annual holy pilgrimage of Hajj this year amid uncertainty over the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Saudi Minister for Hajj and Umrah Mohammed Banten acknowledged that the kingdom was concerned about the safety and well-being of the pilgrims and asked them to delay their booking and "wait before concluding contracts" until there was more clarity about the COVID-19 situation. The minister made these comments in a recent interview with the State TV.

Concerns about cancellation of Hajj this year

Hajj Wikimedia Commons

Although the Saudi official did not directly indicate any plans for cancellation of the biggest annual gathering of Muslims from across the world which takes place at the Holy site of the Ka'abah in Mecca, but his words raise concerns about the possibility of the pilgrimage getting canceled this year if the situation doesn't improve. "Saudi Arabia is fully ready to serve pilgrims and Umrah seekers in all circumstances," Minister Mohammed Saleh Banten told the state-run Al-Ekhbariya 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 and so we have asked our brother Muslims in all countries to wait before concluding contracts [with tour operators] until the situation is clear, he added."

The annual holy pilgrimage of Hajj

Every year some two-and-a-half million Muslim pilgrims form around the globe travel to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to perform Hajj, one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. This year the week-long ritual is supposed to take place during the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Adha or Bakrid which falls in late July.

According to the Islamic faith, any Muslim who is physically able and can afford to travel must undertake the Hajj once in his lifetime.

Saudi closes Mecca and Medina for foreigners

In February this year, the Kingdom took a rare decision to close down the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and suspended the year-long Umrah pilgrimage as a precaution over fears of the virus spreading in Islam's holiest cities, a step that has never been taken in recent history, not even during the 1918 flu epidemic that reportedly killed tend of millions of people worldwide.

Saudi is also preventing foreigners from entering the capital Riyadh, as the kingdom tries to contain the deadly outbreak of COVID-19 virus that has reportedly infected over 1,500 people and killed at least 10 in the Kingdom nation.