Saudi Arabia on Tuesday (June 23rd) said only around 1,000 pilgrims of various nationalities already in the kingdom will be allowed to perform a dramatically scaled-down hajj, as it battles a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) surge.
The decision to exclude pilgrims outside Saudi Arabia, a first in the kingdom's modern history, sparked disappointment among Muslims worldwide even as many accepted it was necessary due to the health risks involved.
The reduced number is a far cry from the 2.5 million who attended the five-day ritual last year and it remains unclear what the selection process will be for this year's hajj, scheduled for the end of July.
"The number of pilgrims will be around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more," Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten told reporters in Riyadh.
"The number won't be in tens or hundreds of thousands" this year, he added.
The government will work with various diplomatic missions in the kingdom to select foreign pilgrims residing in Saudi Arabia who fit the health criteria, he said.
The pilgrimage will be limited to those below 65 years of age and with no chronic illnesses, Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said.
The pilgrims will be tested for coronavirus before arriving in the holy city of Mecca and will be required to quarantine at home after the ritual, he added.
The hajj -- a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime -- could be a major source of contagion, as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.
The decision comes as Saudi Arabia grapples with a major spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 161,000 cases -- the highest in the Gulf -- with more than 1,300 deaths.
In a statement that gave the decision the cover of religious sanction, the Saudi-based Muslim World League said it endorsed the government move for the health and safety of pilgrims, according to state media.
The prestigious Islamic institution Al-Azhar in Cairo also welcomed the move, calling it "wise and based on Islamic jurisprudence".
And Youssef Al-Othaimeen, secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, said in a statement carried by state media that he "appreciated the utmost care given... to the health and safety of the pilgrims".
A scaled-down hajj represents a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.
The smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage was already suspended in March.
Together, they add $12 billion to the Saudi economy every year, according to government figures.