Annual pilgrimage trips for Chinese Muslims suspended due to virus

The China Islamic Association has this year suspended organizing Chinese Muslims to attend the hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, after the country decided to bar Muslims from other countries from taking part in the annual pilgrimage to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the association said on Wednesday night.

The confirmed novel coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia has reached more than 170,000, with more than 1,000 casualties have been reported. Also, the outbreak mainly happened in the cities of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah, where key religious sites are located. Saudi Arabia also announced on Monday that it would not allow Muslims from other countries to travel to the country for the hajj to protect people's health, the association said in a statement released on Wednesday. 

As a result, the association has decided to suspend organizing the pilgrimage trips for Chinese Muslims this year. It asks local Islamic associations around the country to explain the situation to local Muslim communities, according to the statement.

There has always been a long waiting list to attend the annual pilgrimage organized by the association in Muslim-populated areas such as the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. More than 10,000 Chinese pilgrims have the opportunity to attend the annual hajj in recent years depending on the quota given by Saudi Arabia.

To take part in the pilgrimage, Chinese Muslims must register at the website of their local religious affairs bureau. The annual quota given to each province or region depends on its Muslim population.

Some 2.5 million pilgrims typically visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the weeklong hajj.

Saudi Arabia will also limit the number of domestic pilgrims attending this year's hajj, which will start at the end of July, to around 1,000, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

Hajj minister Mohammed Benten said at a news conference on Tuesday that strict health criteria would be used to select eligible pilgrims among citizens and residents. Those above 65 years of age would not be allowed to attend the pilgrimage, he said.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is keen to enable all Muslims of different nationalities to perform the hajj but the global health circumstances this year made this hajj an exception, Benten said.

"Everyone knows the risks of this virus and knows that all countries are closed now and until hajj time, and therefore there will be risks to transfer pilgrims across countries," he said, adding that pilgrim safety was a priority for the kingdom.

The pilgrimage has been canceled many times throughout history because of wars and diseases, but has faced no significant limits on attendance since the mid-1800s, when outbreaks of cholera and plague kept pilgrims away for a number of years.