SINGAPORE: The Haj plans for Muslim pilgrims from Singapore has been deferred for the second year in a row due to concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) announced on Thursday (May 27).
“The COVID-19 pandemic situation around the world remains dynamic and of significant concern, with the spread of new variants of the virus in recent months,” said MUIS in a news release.
“An increasing number of countries around the world are reporting new waves of infections and the coming months likely will remain challenging,” it added, noting that the Singapore Government’s advisory to defer travel except for certain essential and compassionate reasons remains in force.
In light of this, MUIS has decided not to send a Haj delegation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia this year.
The council added that this decision is supported by the Fatwa Committee, which is chaired by Mufti Dr Naziruddin Nasir, in consideration of the health and safety of pilgrims.
In a typical year, more than two million Muslims perform the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca - one of the five pillars of Islam - with Singapore allowed 900 pilgrims each year since 2018.
The Haj was also deferred last year for Singapore pilgrims due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
READ: COVID-19: Haj plans for Singapore pilgrims deferred to protect their health and safety, says MUIS
MUIS said it will facilitate the re-allocation of Haj places for the affected pilgrims to next year, though it noted their eligibility to perform the Haj then will be subject to any requirements mandated by the relevant authorities in Saudi Arabia as well as the prevailing COVID-19 situation.
Last month, Saudi authorities said only those immunised against the coronavirus will be allowed to perform the umrah, a pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of the year.
In its release, MUIS said it has “full confidence” in Saudi Arabia’s management of the pandemic and that “appropriate measures” will be put into place should the Haj be allowed to proceed this year.
“However, Singapore has its own considerations to safeguard the health and well-being of Singaporean pilgrims,” it said.
NO OFFICIAL DECISION YET ON INTERNATIONAL PILGRIMS
MUIS noted that as of Tuesday, Saudi Arabia had not announced an official decision on this year’s Haj and that it is still unclear whether the annual pilgrimage will be open to international pilgrims, including those from Singapore.
It noted that this is only one month before Zulkaedah 17 in the Islamic calendar - which this year coincides with Jun 28 - when flights typically depart from Singapore for the Haj.
READ: Muslim travel agents in Singapore call for patience after Saudi Arabia suspends entry for pilgrims
“Haj is a complex operation and adequate planning is needed to ensure pilgrims’ health and well-being, including assembling and training a medical team to provide medical support to pilgrims,” MUIS said.
“Additionally, there are many unforeseen circumstances that could happen during this unprecedented period that will compromise pilgrims’ health and well-being.”
The council said indications suggest that even if the Haj is open to international pilgrims, they will be subject to considerations such as age, their vaccination status, COVID-19 testing as well as quarantine requirements in both Saudi Arabia and Singapore.
“These additional restrictions will require significantly much longer travel duration, and also result in significantly higher Haj package prices and affect the pilgrims’ preparations for Haj,” it said.
“Given the evolving nature of the COVID-19 virus, as well as the emergence of new, more contagious variants, there is still a risk to the health and safety of the pilgrims despite the good control measures that (Saudi Arabia) will put in place,” said MUIS, noting there could be factors beyond the control of Saudi authorities despite their best efforts to ensure the safety of pilgrims.
The council’s decision is also supported by the Association of Muslim Travel Agents (AMTAS) and Haj travel agencies, who have agreed on the importance of protecting the community and minimising the potential spread of the virus.
AMTAS and the Haj travel agencies have also agreed that the deposits paid by pilgrims last year - which had been carried over for them to perform the pilgrimage this year - should now be refunded, the release said.
MUIS is working with Saudi authorities to facilitate the refund of deposits, and pilgrims will be contacted by their respective travel agencies within the next two weeks regarding their refunds.
MUIS said it hoped that this decision will help ease the anxieties of the affected pilgrims and families, and allay Singapore pilgrims’ concern on the uncertainty and the financial risks involved in performing the Haj this year.
“This decision will also safeguard the health and well-being of our Singaporean pilgrims and the community at large from the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” it added.