06/17/2020, 14.36
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Saudi limits on Hajj over COVID-19 spark ill feelings and resignation in Indonesia and Malaysia

Saudi authorities have yet to issue their official decision over the major pilgrimage. A scaled down pilgrimage limited to locals appears to be making headway. Malaysia has urged its citizens to be patient and "accept the decision". In Indonesia, fake news claim that pilgrimage funds have been misappropriated.

Jakarta (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In the Muslim-majority countries of Southeast Asia, Saudi Arabia’s decision to scale back the Hajj due to the novel coronavirus pandemic is generating ill feelings.

Saudi authorities are still looking at procedures and timing to ensure maximum safety for the limited number of pilgrims who might be allowed. Some sources are even suggesting that the annual pilgrimage might be cancelled.

A South Asian official in contact with Saudi hajj authorities said that Riyadh is “buying time” before making its decision. “It's a toss-up between holding a nominal haj and scrapping it entirely,” he said.

In the event of a go-ahead at the last minute, most countries would not be able to organise travel and assistance to pilgrims. This is why the most probable scenario appears to be a reduced pilgrimage limited to Saudis and a symbolic number.

Normally, Hajj attracts around 2.5 million people a year. With such numbers, physical distance is nearly impossible and even basic sanitation would be guaranteed with extreme difficulty.

This has led the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia to withdraw from the pilgrimage, a decision met with a mixture of ill feelings (in Indonesia) and resignation (in Malaysia).

For Malaysia’s Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, the decision to cancel participation was dictated by the need to protect public health. Pilgrims are at risk contracting the coronavirus and causing new outbreaks upon their return.

He said he hoped that his fellow coreligionists would continue “to be patient and accept the decision” however painful it might be.

Most Malaysian Muslims appear to be heeding the minister’s appeal and fully grasp the need for protection of public health since the pandemic is still raging.

The situation is different in Indonesia. The decision to cancel the hajj has triggered a series of rumours and fake news on social media which are fuelling anti-government sentiments.

According to some hoaxes, the authorities are said to have pocketed the funds earmarked for Hajj, diverted part of them to prop up the local currency or used them in certain projects and infrastructures.

Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi said that the pandemic and as well as Saudi Arabia's indefinite suspension of the umrah (big hajj) did not leave enough time for the government to prepare people's visas and protection measures.

“There is no hajj departure this year,” Fachrul said. “Those who have paid and registered will be placed for next year’s departure.”

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, usually has the largest quota of Hajj pilgrims. This year it planned to send an estimated 221,000 pilgrims, and 180,000 had already paid for travel and accommodation, the Religious Affairs Ministry said.

In an attempt to dispel rumours, Indonesia’s Haj Fund Management Agency (BPKH) issued a statement saying that the funds are safe in the pilgrims’ accounts and will only be used for the pilgrimage.

The country faces many hoaxes on a daily basis but Indonesia’s Muslims could see what is good and true, noted Zuhairi Misrawi from Nahdlatul Ulama.

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