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Saudi says to hold 'limited' hajj: state media

In this file photo taken on April 24, 2020, sanitation workers disinfect the area around the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque. On Monday Saudi Arabia said it will hold a 'limited' hajj this year due to the coronavirus pandemic
In this file photo taken on April 24, 2020, sanitation workers disinfect the area around the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque. On Monday Saudi Arabia said it will hold a 'limited' hajj this year due to the coronavirus pandemic STR AFP/File
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Riyadh (AFP)

Saudi Arabia on Monday announced it would hold a "very limited" hajj this year owing to the coronavirus pandemic, with pilgrims already in the kingdom allowed to take part.

The decision, fraught with political and economic peril, comes as Saudi Arabia struggles to contain the virus amid a new spike in daily cases and deaths.

"It was decided to hold the pilgrimage this year with very limited numbers... with different nationalities in the kingdom," the official Saudi Press Agency said, citing the hajj ministry.

The hajj, a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, represents a major potential source of contagion as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.

Any decision to limit the event risks annoying Muslim hardliners for whom religion trumps health concerns.

A watered-down hajj would represent a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, which is already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.

It could also trigger renewed scrutiny of the Saudi custodianship of Islam's holiest sites -- the kingdom's most powerful source of political legitimacy.

A series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom's management of the hajj.

A full-scale hajj, which last year drew about 2.5 million pilgrims, was unlikely after authorities advised Muslims in late March to defer preparations due to the fast-spreading disease.

Earlier this month, Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, emerged as one of the first countries to withdraw from the pilgrimage after pressing Riyadh for clarity, with a minister calling it a "very bitter and difficult decision".

Malaysia, Senegal and Singapore followed suit with similar announcements.

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