Only people “immunized” against the Chinese coronavirus will be allowed to perform the Islamic Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca starting next week, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported on Monday.
Only pilgrims who have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine, received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine at least 14 days prior to arrival in Mecca, or contracted and recovered from the Chinese coronavirus, are allowed to perform Umrah. The mandate will go into effect on the first day of Ramadan, which is a month-long Islamic fasting holiday starting on April 12 this year.
The immunization requirement also applies to people seeking to pray in Mecca’s Grand Mosque or the nearby Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Islam’s second holiest city, according to a press release by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah on April 5.
The Umrah is an optional pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, that may be performed any time of year. It remains unclear whether the immunization requirement will apply to pilgrims seeking to perform the obligatory Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which is required once in a Muslim’s lifetime and is expected to be held later this year in July.
Saudi’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said the new immunization requirement stemmed from a decision to “to increase the operational capacity of the Grand Mosque in Makkah [Mecca].” Saudi Arabia allowed only a limited number of pilgrims to perform the Hajj pilgrimage last July due to concerns over the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. Just 1,000 Saudi residents were allowed to participate in last year’s Hajj, a fraction of the 2.5 million Muslims from around the world who took part in the pilgrimage in 2019.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah reopened Mecca’s Grand Mosque and Medina’s Prophet’s Mosque in October 2020 following a seven-month suspension of worship at the sites due to the pandemic.
“More than 13 million worshippers wearing masks and observing physical distancing rules have visited the mosques since the seven-month prayer and Umrah suspension was lifted last October,” Arab News reported on April 6.
The severely restricted capacity of last year’s Hajj coupled with the cancellation of most Umrah pilgrimages in 2020 cost Saudi Arabia an estimated $4.6 billion. The Hajj alone typically generates $6 billion for the Kingdom’s highly lucrative religious tourism industry. The sum is “equivalent to about 2.7 percent of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product,” according to Bloomberg.
Saudia Arabia’s King Salman relieved former Hajj Minister Mohamed Benten of his duties via royal decree on March 12, replacing him with Saudi state minister and cabinet member Essam bin Saad bin Saeed. Although no reason was given for the replacement, Benten oversaw the decisions to close Mecca and Medina’s main mosques at the height of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic last year and scale back the 2020 Hajj.