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Indonesia cancels Islamic hajj pilgrimage to Mecca for second year over COVID-19 concerns

ABC News - June 11, 2021

Erwin Renaldi and Farid M Ibrahim – For many Muslims, performing hajj – one of the Islamic pillars – is a lifelong aspiration and one that is only possible for those who are financially and physically able.

Even then, most will only experience the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia once in their lifetime.

"I have been saving for five years," Ms Remi, a resident of the Indonesian province of West Java, told the ABC.

She and her husband have already made a hajj payment of almost $7,000 to the country's Hajj Financial Management Agency. "I was able to fully pay just before COVID last year," Ms Remi said.

But even a seven-year wait is "relatively" quick for her, she said, adding that in many cases people wait for more than a decade.

According to data released in 2019 by Indonesia's Ministry of Religious Affairs, the average waiting period varies from province to province.

South Sulawesi has the longest average waiting time of 39 years due to a quota system, while in the capital region of Jakarta the wait is almost 20 years.

But for those who are willing to pay more, Indonesia offers a special arrangement called "ONH Plus" to jump the queue.

Sjachrani Nahar and her husband, Nasyantoro Sulistio, from South Sulawesi said that they had registered for the exclusive service.

"For this year's rate, we had to adjust the payment up to more than $15,000 for each one of us," Ms Nahar said, adding that they were supposed to go on hajj in 2019.

But the long-awaited dream has been shattered again for many pilgrims from Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

Last week, the Indonesian government announced the hajj pilgrimage would be cancelled for the second year in a row due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Due to the pandemic and for the safety of the pilgrims, the government has decided that this year it won't allow Indonesian pilgrims to go again," Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, the Minister of Religious Affairs, said in a statement.

Ms Remi, like hundreds of Indonesian Muslims, said she was devastated by the government's decision.

"I feel sad," she said, adding that she would have performed hajj last year if it had been possible. "But what can we do? I accepted the decision... I'm trying to be patient."

Ms Nahar and Mr Sulistio were also disappointed. "We don't want to blame anyone ... it's only that we have been waiting for years, and again it could not be realised this year," Ms Nahar said.

"We can understand what's happened and we don't want to risk our life in this pandemic."

Islamic Pilgrimage amid outbreak

The Saudi government hasn't made an official statement regarding hajj this year, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

But an announcement could be made in the coming days as "the kingdom completes its assessments of the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic", acting Saudi Minister of Media Dr Majid Al-Qasabi said.

The core ritual of hajj will likely take place on July 23, depending on when the first crescent of the new moon is sighted, beginning the sacred month of Dhul Hijjah.

Last year, only about 1,000 pilgrims, mainly residing in Saudi Arabia, attended the hajj due to crowd restrictions put in place by the Kingdom.

Normally the holy sites in Mecca and Medina host more than 2 million people during the annual Islamic practice.

The hajj quota for Indonesia is among one of the largest, with more than 200,000 people attending per year.

Earlier this week, the Saudi Ambassador in Jakarta dismissed rumours that the cancellation was due to COVID-19 vaccine preferences.

China's Sinovac, which is widely used in Indonesia and has recently been approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, was not among vaccines that Saudi Arabia earlier accepted for foreign travellers.

According to media reports from Arab News, people fully vaccinated with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson will not need to quarantine on arrival, but all others must quarantine for seven days.

"The issue of cancelling the departure of Indonesian pilgrims has nothing to do with the use of certain vaccine brands and certain manufacturers, as has been reported in the media," Syekh Essam bin Abed Al-Thaqafi told reporters.

Where has the money gone?

The announcement by the Indonesian government has also sparked growing concern about how the country is managing hajj funds.

Ms Nahar said some people in her hajj group had been raising the issue with the hajj operator, trying to find out where their money had been kept for the last two years.

She said they wanted their money back but feared losing their place on the waiting list. "If we ask for a return, we will lose our barcode number and have to start the [hajj] queue again," Ms Nahar said.

Back in 2017, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo said that he wanted a national fund that arranged hajj pilgrimages to make investments in infrastructure projects.

Umar Mansyur, one of the hajj operators in Jakarta, told the ABC that the hajj fund had always been a hot topic, but had faced increased scrutiny due to the cancellation.

"Disappointed pilgrims, sparked by comments on social media, are now demanding an independent audit to know where their money has gone or how it's being spent on infrastructure," Mr Mansyur said. "There has always been misinformation, they have no clues."

The country's Hajj Financial Management Agency said in a statement that the fund was "safe".

"All funds managed by hajj pilgrims, worth more than Rp135 trillion ($12 billion) as of May 2020 in the form of rupiah and foreign exchange are managed professionally on safe and liquid sharia instruments," Anggito Abimanyu, the head of the agency, said.

Ms Remi said she was yet to decide whether she would ask for her hajj payment to be refunded. "But if they informed us clearly where the money goes, I would accept that as long as they use it for good things."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-11/indonesia-cancels-hajj-two-years-in-a-row-mecca-saudi-arabia/10020415