Hajj and Umrah is still restricted for South Africans, but once vaccination rollout is undertaken, there is hope that pilgrimage may resume, writes Ismail Olla, Deputy Secretary General of the SA Muslims Travel Operators Association.
It has been just over a year since Saudi Arabia had suspended entry for Pilgrims due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Fears of impending lockdown sent pilgrims and travel professionals into a scurry.
The arduous task of informing travelers that all future Umrah & Hajj journeys had been placed on hold was a challenge. So many questions had been asked such as: ‘When will we be allowed to travel?’ ‘Can you use our funds paid to the hotels for future travel?’; ‘I have my visa, will I still be allowed to enter KSA?’
There had been so much of uncertainty, however the only certainty was that COVID had the final say and travel professionals did all in their ability to ensure that every pilgrim was informed accordingly as information was received.
Images on social media of pilgrims gradually vacating the Haram each day – until finally empty – sent shivers down the spine of many.
During this time of Ramadaan, there is normally a huge crowd build up of pilgrims from around the world. Who would have ever imagined that there was no one performing Tawaaf or Umrah in the The Sacred House. The Haramain had been closed off and only a few essential workers and appointed Imams were allowed in for daily prayers which included Tarawih during Ramadaan nights. The year 1441/2020 saw only 1000 fortunate persons perform Hajj. Many were shattered knowing that all their arrangements for this once in a lifetime journey had been put on hold.
Eventually with the Mercy of Allah, on 04 October 2020, Umrah resumed in a phased approach for residents and nationals of Saudi Arabia only. Rules pertaining to performance of Umrah and visit to The Prophets Mosque had been implemented and every 30 days saw the number of Mu’tamireen increase gradually.
Pilgrims were required to download mobile applications making their Covid status known as well as another application reserving an appointment to perform Umrah, enter The Rawdah or perform Salah. This ensured that Pilgrims had been monitored and kept safe from effects of COVID.
Phase three came into effect on 01 Nov 20 where a few Pakistani & Indonesian pilgrims were allowed to enter KSA for a maximum of 10 days which included a 3 day mandatory quarantine as well as COVID testing at the end of the three days. To my understanding this was a testing phase to see exactly how it would play out when more pilgrims arrive, however since then not many countries had been allowed to enter KSA.
The Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques, King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has spared no cost to ensure that The Haramain and Mu’tamireen are kept safe.
Implementation of the mobile applications as well as a swift roll out of vaccinations have made it possible for residents of The Kingdom to be allowed to pray Tarawih and visit The Rawdah, understandably with strict protocols in place. Only vaccinated residents are allowed entry, masks are mandatory, social distancing has been enforced, more persons have been allowed to perform Umrah. This gives Muslims worldwide joy & hope knowing that one day we too will be invited back for the Sacred Pilgrimage and visit to Masjid Nabawi.
The national carrier of Saudi Arabia has scheduled to resume international flights from 17 May 2021. Unfortunately, South Africa remains on a list alongside 19 other countries not allowed to enter The Kingdom due to Covid-19. The countries, named by the Ministry of Interior are: Argentina, the UAE, Germany, the US, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Pakistan, Brazil, Portugal, the UK, Turkey, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Lebanon, Egypt, India and Japan. All entry permits including Umrah visas will not be granted to Nationals on this list.
South African Nationals who are residents of Saudi Arabia are allowed to return to The Kingdom provided they quarantine in a country not listed above.
In my opinion the only hope for South African Pilgrims is that the stigma attached to our COVID variant B.1.351 is eradicated and a swift vaccination rollout is undertaken. Once this is achieved then God Willing, we hope that entry for Hajj & Umrah will resume.
We pray for the end to COVID-19 and that South Africans as well as all Muslims of the global community will be able to travel freely to the Holy Lands. The heart yearns to stand inform of The Kabah with the chanting of LABBAIK ALLAHUMA LABBAIK on our tongues, Ameen.