Defer hajj plans this year
Although the Saudi Arabian government yesterday urged different countries to delay making hajj plans this year, suggesting the pilgrimage could be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Bangladesh said it would go ahead with their preparation regarding hajj.
"We have heard the Royal Saudi government's appeal. But we will go on with our ongoing preparations centring this year's hajj. We will refund money to intended hajj pilgrims, if hajj isn't held this year finally," Nurul Islam, secretary, religious affairs ministry, told The Daily Star yesterday over telephone.
Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Banten yesterday said on state television that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all Muslims and nationals, different media sources reported.
"That's why we have requested all Muslims around the world to hold any signing of agreements [with tour operators] until we have a clearer vision," he said.
In February, the kingdom took the extraordinary decision to close off the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to foreigners to stop the spread of the virus, a step which wasn't even taken during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.
Restrictions have been tightened in the kingdom as it grapples with over 1,500 confirmed cases of Covid-19.
Saudi Arabia has reported 10 deaths so far. The Middle East has more than 71,000 confirmed cases, most of which are in Iran, and over 3,300 deaths.
Saudi Arabia has barred people from entering or exiting three major cities, including Mecca and Medina, and imposed a night-time curfew across the country.
Like other countries around the world and in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has suspended all inbound and outbound commercial flights.
Each year, up to two million Muslims perform hajj, a physically demanding and often costly pilgrimage that draws the faithful from around the world.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency cited Banten's remarks in stories early Wednesday, saying that Muslims should "be patient" in making their plans for hajj. The pilgrimage was expected to begin in late July this year.
The religious affairs secretary yesterday told this correspondent that the response of intended hajis for completing the registration process is slow this year due to the uncertainty of hajj being held this year, following global coronavirus pandemic.
He said only 50,000 intended hajis so far completed registration this year.
"In the previous years, we almost completed all the processes, including renting houses, registration, ticketing and other issues. But this year, the process is abnormally slow due to coronavirus," he added.
Earlier on March 25, the religious affairs ministry extended the deadline for registration till April 8 to perform hajj this year amid lukewarm responses from aspirant hajis.
"If needed, we will have to further extend the deadline for registration," said Nurul Islam.
A total of 1,37,198 Bangladeshis are scheduled to perform hajj this year which is likely to be held on July 31, depending on the sighting of the moon.
Of the total hajis, 17,198 are scheduled to perform hajj under government management, while the rest are scheduled to perform hajj under private management.
Hajj flights are scheduled to start from June 23.
The government on February 24 approved three hajj packages. Hajis will have to pay Tk 4.25 lakh for package-1 and Tk 3.60 lakh for package-2 under government management, which are Tk 6,500 and Tk 16,000 more than the corresponding packages of the previous year.
With affordability in mind, the government has also introduced package-3 for the first time, which hajis can avail at a cost of Tk 3.15 lakh.