Saudi Arabia on Thursday indefinitely suspended visas for visits to Islam’s holiest sites for the Umrah pilgri…Read More
Saudi Arabia on Thursday indefinitely suspended visas for visits to Islam’s holiest sites for the Umrah pilgrimage, an unprecedented move triggered by coronavirus fears that raises questions over the annual Haj. The kingdom also suspended visas for tourists from countries affected by the virus as fears of a pandemic deepen.
Afzal Patel of Mumbai’s Atlas Tours and Travels said at any given point in time, there must be around 50,000 Indians among 5 lakh Umrah pilgrims in Saudi Arabia from across the world. Pilgrims are disheartened. “We are deeply saddened that pilgrimage had to be called off at the last moment,” said a pilgrim who arrived at Kozhikode airport to be told his flight had been cancelled.
Over 230 Umrah pilgrims from Kozhikode who were to travel to Saudi Arabia were sent back from the airport on Thursday.
While Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is an annual ritual, Umrah can be performed through the year. Lakhs do so every year, particularly during the Islamic months of Rajab, Shaban and Ramzan. Rajab, which set in a few days ago, marks the beginning of the peak season for Umrah.
Saudi Arabia, which so far has reported no cases of the virus but has expressed alarm over its spread in neighbouring countries, said the suspensions were temporary but it provided no timeframe for when they will be lifted.
“The kingdom’s government has decided to take the following precautions: suspending entry to the kingdom for the purpose of Umrah and visit to the Prophet’s mosque temporarily,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement. “Suspending entry into the kingdom with tourist visas for those coming from countries where the spread of the new coronavirus (Covid-19) is a danger,” it added without naming them.
Haj and Umrah tour operators in India said they will incur huge losses. “Umrah pilgrims through my company leave for Saudi every day in a week and I have 500 pilgrims already in Saudi performing Umrah. We will face a huge crisis if the suspension order lasts long,” said Patel. “We have around 150 pilgrims in Saudi Arabia currently and another batch of 150 pilgrims was expected to fly out on Saturday,” said Yusuf Ahmed Khereda of Al Khalid Tours and Travels in Mumbai.
A disappointed P V Vijesh, manager at Al Hind Tours and Travels in Kozhikode, said they had been looking forward to a good Umrah season with around 400 pilgrims bookings every month. Baba Bhai Kolsawala, a tour operator from Mumbai, hoped the suspension of Umrah and visit visas would be revoked soon. Telangana Waqf board chairman Mohammad Saleem said he had put off his plans for Umrah in view of the virus threat. Salahuddin Ansari, officer on special duty on the board, said he and his family were to leave for Jeddah from Hyderabad on Friday. “Now, I have cancelled my leave and am joining duty,” he said.
Saudi Arabian Airlines officials, though, informed trade partners in the afternoon that passengers holding employment, work visit visas, business visit visas and family visit visas can be accepted for travel.
Though Saudi authorities have not specified the period of ban on Indian pilgrims for Umrah, in a separate circular the Saudi ministry of health has imposed restriction on travel and cancelled leave of employees in the Mecca healthcare cluster from March 15 to May 30. Imposing a ban on travel for those in Mecca cluster, the health ministry said except in urgent cases, travel outside the station should not be allowed.
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