Thursday, 17 Jun 2021

South-east Asian pilgrims hit by grief and uncertainty over haj this year

SINGAPORE – Indonesian teacher Sri Wahyuni and her elderly mother were left disappointed again after the government in Indonesia cancelled the haj pilgrimage to Mecca for the second year running because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

They had memorised the religious rituals they were to perform in the holy city in Saudi Arabia, and prepared the necessities, from the simple white attire known as ihram to surgical face masks and hand sanitiser for protection against the coronavirus.

Ms Wahyuni, 33, said her parents had waited more than a decade for their chance to come up in the haj quota system. Her father fell ill and died in 2016, and her mother Tarwisem suffered a stroke in 2019. The 63-year-old woman is now wheelchair-bound.

“My father has already lost his opportunity. So my biggest responsibility as a daughter is to accompany my mother to Mecca to fulfil her lifelong dream while she is still alive,” Ms Wahyuni told The Straits Times by telephone from her home in Palembang.

But their hearts sank after Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas announced the cancellation of the haj, slated to begin in mid-July, to safeguard the health and well-being of Indonesian pilgrims.

“This is a bitter pill that we have to swallow. The sole reason behind the cancellation is that we have placed the safety of our pilgrims as the top priority. I hope the pandemic will end soon,” he said at a press briefing last Friday (June 4).

Pilgrims from Singapore were told in late May to defer their undertaking, while those from Malaysia are still waiting for a directive from the Pilgrims Fund Board or Tabung Haji, the state agency overseeing haj affairs.

Every year, some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long haj, one of the five tenets of Islam.

But the pandemic has caused major disruptions in Saudi Arabia and other countries. Indonesia, which sends the most haj pilgrims, around 200,000 annually, continues to see rising infections.

The Saudi authorities suspended the haj pilgrimage for international pilgrims last year, and have yet to announce an official decision on guidelines and quotas this year.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore has said that the haj is a complex operation involving a variety of rituals stretching across various religious sites, and adequate planning is needed to ensure the safety of pilgrims.

Adding to the uncertainty were reports of Saudi Arabia’s concerns about China’s Sinovac vaccine, received by most vaccinated Indonesians and some Malaysians.

Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, Malaysia’s coordinating minister for the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, told a May 30 news conference that his government would “discuss this matter with the Saudi Arabia government to accord leeway to them”.

However, on June 1, the World Health Organisation approved Sinovac for emergency use.

With the decision still up in the air, Malaysians are hoping that they can get their once-in-a-lifetime chance to perform the ritual.

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Mr Harun Ahmmu, president of the Association of Bumiputera Tourism Operators of Malaysia, whose members include licensed haj travel agents, said haj operators and pilgrims were confident that Saudi Arabia would manage the haj properly and put appropriate measures in place should the haj be allowed to proceed this year.

“Business has been down since last year so the agents are hoping to jump-start their business. The pilgrims are also eagerly waiting for good news, if any,” he told ST.

In Indonesia, the reactions have been mixed, with some pilgrims feeling that the authorities were too quick to call off the haj.

Ms Wahyuni said: “We are worried about Covid-19, but there is greater grief in missing the haj. We have waited for so long and prepared early.”

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But Mr Andy Julianto, 39, a cleric from Banjarnegara regency in Central Java, who was to lead a small group of pilgrims from his home town, felt it would be better to defer the trip than to rush into a hasty decision.

“The Religious Ministry has tried its best. The officials had provided pilgrims with guidance on how to perform the haj as well as health protocols we must observe to protect ourselves and others. We have also been vaccinated,” he told ST.

“The authorities must have thought carefully about this. We are sad that we can’t go, but we must accept reality.”

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