COVID-19: Haj pilgrimage for Singaporeans deferred to 2021

·Senior News & Video Producer
·5-min read
MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA - AUGUST 14: Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, located in the center of the Masjid al-Haram, Saudi Arabia on August 14, 2019, after stoning the Jamarat pillars that symbolize the devil as a part of the annual Islamic Hajj pilgrimage.   (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Muslim pilgrims during the annual Islamic Haj pilgrimage in Mecca in 2019. (FILE PHOTO: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) said on Friday (15 May) that it has decided to defer the Haj pilgrimage plans of 900 pilgrims from this year to the next, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

All 900 pilgrims who have registered to perform their pilgrimage this year will be automatically rescheduled to do so in 2021 instead.

MUIS added in a media release that while Saudi Arabia has yet to make an official announcement on the status of this year’s Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, it has taken the deferment decision in conjunction with the Ministry of Health (MOH) as a “responsible stakeholder”.

“The annual Haj pilgrimage involves the gathering of about 2.5 million people from all over the world, in the city of (Mecca),” the council said in the media release. “As with the case of overseas travel, there are inherent risks for Singaporean pilgrims to participate in the Haj and contract the virus.”

During a virtual press conference on Friday, Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said that all 900 Singaporean Haj pilgrims who booked a spot for this year’s journey will be given priority for next year’s trip.

As for whether this would affect the booking of places for the 2021 Haj pilgrimage, he said it was “too far ahead of time to look at the various scenarios that we may have to face”.

“But what we can assure our pilgrims now is that the 900 already registered will be given priority. I think that is the best assurance we can give,” said Masagos.

“How we will face whatever situations, the future is something that we will tackle when the situation arises,” he added.

MUIS chief executive Esa Masood said letters would be sent to all Haj pilgrims registered for this year and that those who are re-thinking their trips can get in touch with their travel agents for possible refunds once the circuit breaker period ends on 1 June.

Several factors in deferment decision

MUIS cited several factors in its decision to defer the Haj pilgrimages.

First, more than 80 per cent of those scheduled to perform Haj this year are above 50 years old, putting them under the category of individuals facing a greater risk complications and mortality if they contract COVID-19.

Second, younger pilgrims who are working have expressed challenges in obtaining leave to perform the Haj and concerns over their job security, given the current challenging economic situation. This is compounded by the fact that Singaporean travellers must serve 14-day Stay-Home Notices upon their return to Singapore.

MUIS said that, in past years, pilgrims would usually have made payment and secured their travel arrangements and accommodation before the month of Ramadan. However, with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become increasingly challenging to adequately prepare logistical and administrative requirements for the pilgrimage.

Furthermore, with Singapore’s healthcare resources fully committed to managing COVID-19 and other pressing hospital requirements, MUIS is unable to assemble a team of doctors and nurses to support this year’s Haj delegation.

Fatwa Committee supports decision

The Fatwa Committee in Singapore convened to discuss the matter, and supports the decision for the deferment of Haj for Singaporean pilgrims to the following year for reasons of their health and safety.

“The committee is of the opinion that in the current context, not all the pre-conditions for a safe Haj are met, and therefore, they recommend that the Singapore delegation defer its Haj plans in order to avoid potential harm,” MUIS said.

The council has also consulted the Association of Muslim Travel Agents (AMTAS) Taskforce on the welfare, health and safety of the pilgrims, and received the taskforce’s support to defer the Singapore delegation.

At the press conference, Singapore’s Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir described the Haj deferment as “another major and difficult adjustment we have had to make to our religious life given our challenging circumstances”.

“The good news for pilgrims is patience in itself – waiting for a safer time to go to Haj – is a very important form of worship in Islam with the greatest reward,” he added.

Monitoring developments in Saudi Arabia

MUIS said that it has been monitoring the developments in Saudi Arabia since the announcement of the suspension of Umrah pilgrimage to minimise the spread of COVID-19 to Mecca and Medinah.

In March, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Haj and Umrah issued an advisory to Haj agencies around the world to stop taking on new reservations or payments for Haj pilgrimage this year. Saudia Airlines also announced the suspension of all international flights until further notice.

The Ministry of Health’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak noted that there has been widespread and sustained community transmission of the coronavirus within Saudi Arabia.

As of 13 May, the country has seen about 14,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, over 250 deaths and has also seen a steady increase of more than 1,000 new daily cases since mid-April.

Mak also pointed to the fact that pilgrims in Mecca would come from a variety of countries, some of which are considered as having a high risk of community transmission.

“In the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, there is a risk (pilgrims) may they may get exposed to infections being carried by other people who may... not have much symptoms, and there is a risk that they will bring back that infection and transmitted (it) among our own local community when they return,” he added.

MUIS will send letters to the affected pilgrims on the details on the Haj deferment, and the next steps they should take. Should pilgrims have any clarifications, they can contact their respective Haj general service agents or the MUIS hotline at 6350-5369.

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