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 advising travellers to making delay plans to visit Mecca in late July.
The last such closure took place more than 200 years ago.
“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.”
Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities that are hubs of the pilgrimage, have both been 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.
The country 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 religious city of Qom.
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.
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.