Hundreds of thousands of Indonesian would-be pilgrims have had to put their haj plans on hold this year as the world’s largest Muslim-majority country has officially decided to cancel the 2020 haj over coronavirus concerns.
Sri Kustini, 60, is just one of the people who had plans to embark on a haj trip this year. She has been waiting for years to go to Saudi Arabia, having registered for the pilgrimage in 2014.
She said she had paid in February the full amount for the trip, which cost her hundreds of millions of rupiah in total.
The resident of Gunung Kidul, Yogyakarta, said she found out about the government cancelling this year's haj from the news, which she forwarded to other would-be pilgrims. Her travel agent, Sri said, had yet to issue any announcement regarding the suspension.
"Maybe Allah has yet to allow us to visit. We are neither disappointed nor upset. There will be another time," Sri told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.
"We accept the government's decision. We just need certainty that we will go [on haj] when this [the pandemic] has ended."
Indonesia, which has the largest quota of haj pilgrims in the world, initially planned to send up to 221,000 people for the annual Muslim tradition. The Religious Affairs Ministry recorded that nearly 180,000 of the pilgrims had paid for their scheduled journeys.
However, Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi said the ongoing pandemic, as well as Saudi Arabia's indefinite suspension on haj and umrah (minor haj) trips, did not leave enough time for the government to prepare people's visas and protection measures.
"There is no haj departure this year. Those who have paid and registered will be placed for next year’s departure,” Fachrul said on Tuesday.
Fachrul, who also cited safety and health concerns as other factors behind the government's decision, claimed he had discussed the cancellation with the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and the House of Representatives.
He asserted that those who had paid off haj travel costs (BIPIH) would embark on the haj in 2021. The central administration would also return the BIPIH to regional administrations.
Jakarta previously expected Saudi authorities to announce the final decision regarding pilgrimages on May 13. The first batch of Indonesian pilgrims was initially scheduled to depart on June 26.
The Islamic kingdom suspended haj and umrah visits due to the coronavirus crisis. On May 28, the Saudi government announced that the suspension would remain in effect, even with certain COVID-19 restrictions having been eased, Gulf News reported.
According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, Saudi Arabia had recorded 87,142 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 525 deaths as of Tuesday.
Besides Indonesia, Singapore also decided to defer this year’s haj for its 900 pilgrims to 2021 due to the pandemic.
National Haj and Umrah Commission chairman Mustolih Siradj said he appreciated Fachrul's decision, noting that the ministry had made the call without having to wait for an official announcement from Saudi Arabia.
"This is a strong signal that we, as the largest Muslim population in the world, can stand for our people and make decisions without having to rely on other countries,” he said.
Some lawmakers, however, claimed that the government did not consult the House before announcing the cancellation, with the chairman of the House Commission VIII overseeing religious affairs, Yandri Susanto, saying that, by doing so, Fachrul had violated Law No. 8/2019 on haj and umrah.
"It was so sudden. A haj cancellation should not be decided unilaterally by the government, but also the House,” Yandri said. "But the minister announced it today instead; maybe he was not aware of the law."
The National Mandate Party (PAN) executive went on to say that the government seemed to be avoiding responsibility by cancelling this year's pilgrimage, which he said had shown that the government was not ready to send pilgrims from the beginning.
Yandri said the commission had scheduled a hearing with the government on June 4 to discuss the matter.
Diah Pitaloka of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) concurred with Yandri, saying that the ministry should have consulted the House before canceling the haj.
"This involves trillions [of rupiah] of money. It's not just like, ‘We can’t go now, so we can go next time’. We have to decide it together, formally,” she said.
She further called on the government to ensure that this year’s pilgrims are prioritized for next year’s trips, adding that the ministry should use the situation as an opportunity to comprehensively evaluate the pilgrimage.