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'A very bitter and difficult decision': Indonesia to skip Hajj pilgrimage over coronavirus fears

Indonesia's quota for Hajj pilgrims this year was 221,000, more than 90 percent of whom had already registered to make the trip
Saudi authorities have suspended the Umrah pilgrimage but have yet to provide a definitive policy regarding the Hajj (AFP)

Indonesia has cancelled plans to attend this year's Hajj pilgrimage due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the country's religious affairs minister has said.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population and more than 220,000 Indonesians had planned to perform the Hajj, a pilgrimage all Muslims are supposed to perform at least once in their lifetimes.

This year, as the coronavirus tears through nations, killing at least 380,000 people worldwide, Saudi authorities have yet to announce whether the pilgrimage, set to take place in July, will go ahead.

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"The government has decided to cancel the Hajj 2020 as the Saudi Arabian authorities failed to provide certainty," Fachrul Razi, Indonesia's religious affairs minister, said during a news conference on Tuesday.

"This was a very bitter and difficult decision. But we have a responsibility to protect our pilgrims and Hajj workers."

Saudi authorities have said that the Umrah pilgrimage - which can be made year-round - will remain suspended until further notice but has yet to provide a definitive policy regarding Hajj.

Last month, Indonesia pressed Riyadh to announce a decision, with President Joko Widodo holding a telephone call with Saudi Arabia's King Salman on the matter, Razi said.

Jakarta had considered allowing half the usual number of pilgrims to travel in order to limit the risk, but instead opted to keep them all at home, he added.

'Heartbroken'

Around 2.5 million people from around the world usually make the pilgrimage to the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina for the week-long ritual.

The Hajj is a key revenue earner for the kingdom but risks becoming a major source of contagion if millions flock to Mecca's religious sites.

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Each year, countries get a quota for how many citizens are allowed to make the holy trip, to ensure fair distribution. 

Indonesia's quota this year was 221,000, more than 90 percent of whom had already registered to go, according to the religious affairs ministry website.

"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," said Mustolih Siradj, the National Hajj and Umrah Commission chairman, noting that the ministry made the decision without waiting for an official announcement from the kingdom.

City-state Singapore also announced last month that its citizens would not perform the Hajj this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While Hajj has been cancelled in the past over war or epidemics, it has not happened since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932.