The Jakarta Post
Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it would indefinitely halt all umrah (minor haj) amid fears of the coronavirus outbreak has shocked many, especially those who were already heading to the kingdom and those who had arrived at airports in Indonesia and abroad to begin their journeys.
Indonesian Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Nur Ibrahim, for instance, said some 83 pilgrims from Indonesia were set to fly back from Abu Dhabi International Airport on Friday midnight following Thursday’s announcement.
For umrah, which is not mandatory for Muslims and can be performed at almost any time, pilgrims prepare for months before journeying to Saudi Arabia, which hosts nearly 7 million umrah pilgrims annually.
Pilgrims from other countries previously faced a temporarily ban over fears of the Ebola virus, but this is unprecedented for Indonesia. While the government expressed respect for Saudi Arabia’s decision, the Foreign Ministry is lobbying the Saudi government to allow Indonesian pilgrims who had already arrived or were flying to the country at the time of the announcement to go on umrah.
However, no one should get their hopes up, as the kingdom has also temporarily barred travelers from countries considered at risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, while Iran has even suspended Friday prayers. At the very least, pilgrims should be able to expect their governments and pilgrimage agencies to work to ensure their rights are upheld. Stranded passengers need support to cover their unexpected needs, such as transportation and accommodation.
Indonesian authorities need to coordinate as best as possible with their counterparts abroad to ensure safe travel amid the sudden development.
While stunned, some pilgrims have said they understood the need for the temporary ban, even though Indonesia has not had any confirmed cases. As of Thursday, the World Health Organization had reported almost 83,000 cases globally with 2,804 deaths. While these were mainly recorded in China, with an increasing number of cases in other parts of the world, there has been increased global uncertainty, as reflected in plummeting stock prices, including on the Indonesia Stock Exchange.
While scientists are rushing to find a cure, no one knows for sure when the virus will be contained. By suddenly announcing the suspension of umrah, the Saudi government may be looking to ensure its preparedness for the haj season, which lasts from late July to early August, when it customarily welcomes about 2.5 million guests from around the world.
The number of Indonesian umrah pilgrims has been increasing, as the queue for the haj, the mandatory pilgrimage for all able Muslims, is more than a decade-long, even though Indonesia has the world’s largest haj quota, with 231,000 pilgrims set to travel this year.
Our government and pilgrimage agencies now have the opportunity to maintain and improve the credibility of all pilgrimage services — while the victims of swindlers continue to wait for compensation. The business of piety will forever be profitable and pilgrims should not be left alone to cover their own losses, given only the excuse that their fate was “God’s will”.