How Saudi's suspension on Umrah travel will affect Muslim pilgrims
Washington - It took several years for Hina Baig to save up thousands of dollars for her family's special pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. They were supposed to leave next week.
On Wednesday she learned the trip was cancelled, after the country suspended entry for the purposes of certain pilgrimages called umrah and visits to the prophet Muhammad's mosque, a holy site.
Baig, 40, shed tears. The washed and folded clothes prepared for the trip are still laid out around the bedroom of her home near Houston, and she doesn't know what will happen to the $7 000 (about R109 000) her family spent.
"Hopefully we don't lose that money, because then it'll take me another 20 years to go," she said.
Baig is among millions of Muslims across the country and around the globe who were planning to make the umrah, visiting Mecca and walking in the steps of the prophet. These trips are especially popular during the month of Ramadan, which starts in April.
Baig wanted the trip to be a family event for herself, her husband and two teenagers. She'd heard about the pilgrimages since she was a child.
"I remember when you're a kid and you finally get to go Disney, and it's sort of like that," she said. "But it's so spiritual."
The announcement from Saudi Arabia that it was temporarily suspending entry to the country for the purposes of umrah and visiting Muhammad's mosque caused a lot of confusion among Muslims who have had plans to visit the region. Many are currently finalizing plans for the major hajj pilgrimage, which begins at the end of July.
It is unclear when the country's restrictions will be lifted or how they could affect hajj, during which millions of Muslims mingle in tight quarters for several days and sleep in tents. Saudi Arabia has yet to report any cases of coronavirus. But its neighbor, Iran, has documented more than 200 cases.
"Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus and urges its citizens to exercise caution before travelling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks," the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement announcing the decision to halt entry for umrah and also bar all tourist visas for citizens of countries where Saudi authorities have deemed the spread of the virus to be a threat.
Umrah can be performed at any time of year and is encouraged, not mandatory. Pilgrims typically visit Mecca, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba shrine that Muslims pray toward five times a day. They also visit the holy city of Medina to walk the path of Prophet Muhammad and visit his tomb.
Athif Hussain, a 29-year-old who lives in Ashburn, Virginia, was supposed to leave for umrah with his father and brother at the end of March. As of Friday, it was unclear whether they would go.
"This is the first time where Saudi Arabia has put limitations like this that we know of," he said. "It's anxiety-inducing and feels like we're taking a risk."
Tarek El Messidi, who is planning to be a spiritual guide for umrah pilgrims for two weeks in March, spent this week reassuring 73 American Muslims scheduled to go on the trip that everything was still on schedule. He still expects to get tourist visas for them next week, but there's confusion around whether tourists will be able to visit the holy sites.
El Messidi, who lives in Philadelphia and leads Celebrate Mercy, a Muslim group that focuses on Islamic teachings and social justice, said that Saudi Arabia's restrictions did mean an Egyptian with a green card who had signed up for the trip would not be able to go, since he needs a special umrah permit, rather than a tourist visa, to enter the country.
Of the others in his group, who come from across the United States, "no one has said, 'This is a risk and I'm not going,' " El Messidi said. "I'm surprised, because we have some people who are anxious about other things."
El Messidi is working with the Dar el Salam tourist agency, one of the bigger agencies that takes people on pilgrimages. He shared a video with his group that shows a Dar el Salam tour guide who had landed in Saudi Arabia this week with a group of Americans and filmed himself from the bus saying that everything was fine.
"I can tell they're freaking out because they're sharing notes like don't cancel, be patient," El Messidi said of the tourist agency.
For Muslims, hajj is an even bigger deal than umrah, because it is required for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford to go at least once in their lifetimes.
Pilgrims are not supposed to wear anything around their faces, including head coverings like the niqab, so face masks to prevent the spread of disease generally have not been permitted.
Making hajj usually takes at least 10 days, costs thousands of dollars and involves its own visa process through a tour agency.
"Once you make that intention, whatever comes from God comes from God," said Dilshad D. Ali, an editor at Haute Hijab who writes on Muslims in America. "If you've made the intention, you just let it ride."