Saudi to gradually resume Umrah pilgrimage from October 4

RIYADH (AFP) – Saudi Arabia will gradually resume the year-round Umrah pilgrimage for Muslims from October 4, the Interior Ministry said on Tuesday, seven months after it was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Kingdom suspended the Umrah in March and later scaled back the annual Haj in a blow to millions of pilgrims around the world amid fears that the coronavirus could spread to Islam’s holiest sites.

In the first stage, “6,000 citizens and residents within the Kingdom will be allowed to perform the Umrah per day from October 4”, the ministry said in a statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Visitors from outside the Kingdom will be permitted from November 1, when Umrah’s capacity will be raised to 20,000 pilgrims per day, the ministry added.

The Umrah usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year.

The ministry said Umrah would be allowed to resume at full “natural capacity” once the threat of the pandemic is eliminated.

File photo shows Muslims perform the Umrah. PHOTO: AFP

The decision to resume Umrah was in response to the “aspirations of Muslims home and abroad” to perform the ritual and visit the holy sites, the ministry added.

The decision comes after the kingdom organised the smallest Haj in modern history in late July, with only up to 10,000 Muslims allowed to take part – a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated last year.

Health authorities said no coronavirus cases were reported at the holy sites during the Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime.

Haj pilgrims circled the Kaabah – a cubic structure inside Makkah’s Grand Mosque – along socially distant paths.

The pilgrims were also subjected to regular temperature checks and required to go into mandatory quarantine after the ritual.

His Majesty King Salman, the Kingdom’s 84-year-old ruler, said holding the Haj in the shadow of the pandemic required “double efforts” by Saudi authorities. The Haj and Umrah pilgrimages are a massive logistical challenge, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites, making them vulnerable to contagion.

The Kingdom sought to contain a spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 330,000 cases and over 4,500 deaths. But Saudi Arabia also reported a high rate of recoveries, which surpassed 312,000 on Tuesday.

Last week, Saudi Arabia partially lifted its suspension on international flights, six months after travel curbs were imposed due to the pandemic.