RIYADH - In an unprecedented move, Saudi Arabia has decided to cut pilgrims number for this year's hajj, urging domestic and foreign pilgrims to postpone their hajj plans for this year due to ongoing expansion work at Makkah's Grand Mosque.
This is an exceptional and temporary decision, Bandar Hajjar, minister of Hajj was quoted by SPA state news agency late on Saturday, June 15.
The expansion plans [of the Al Masjid Al Haram] aim to provide safety and as much services as possible for pilgrims, Hajjar added.
The authorities had decided to reduce by half the number of pilgrims coming from within Saudi Arabia, and by about 20 per cent those from abroad.
Officials said the decision followed discussions to avoid stampede and ensure pilgrims safety due to construction work aimed at expanding the holy site of Makkah.
The ongoing expansion works at the two holy mosques are aimed at accommodating more pilgrims in the coming years.
Approved by King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz in 2011, the latest expansion would cover an area of 400,000 sq. meters to accommodate 1.2 million worshippers.
The total area of the existing Haram Mosque is 356,000 sq. meters accommodating 770,000 worshippers.
The Mataf [the circumambulation areas around the Kaaba, the heart of Al Masjid Al Haram] will also see expansion.
Hatem Qadi, deputy hajj minister and spokesman of the ministry, emphasized the need for reducing the number of foreign and domestic pilgrims this year.
"The period for cutting the number of pilgrims will not exceed two years," he said.
He cited the grand mufti's statement on the issue saying the government took the decision because it was essential.
"The ongoing expansion is for the benefit of pilgrims," the mufti said.
Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj consists of several ceremonies, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
Some 3.1 million pilgrims performed the Hajj last year, most of them from abroad.
Though the decision was shocking to many Muslims aspiring for the life-time journey, Saudi officials they do not wish to prevent anyone from the spiritual journey.
"By making this announcement our government is not preventing anybody from hajj, but asking them to postpone in order to avoid congestion and help first-time hajis to perform their religious duties without difficulties," Saeed Al-Qurashi, a member of the Hajj & Umrah Committee at Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Arab News.
He added that the mataf could hold now only 39,000 faithful per hour, suggesting an influx of a large number of pilgrims could cause congestion inside the mosque.
"Once the mataf expansion is completed, it can accommodate more than 130,000 pilgrims per hour, he said.
So, it would be better for our brethren to come for Haj next year or after two years, when they will be able to perform their rituals with ease.
Over the past few years, the Saudi government has championed several projects to develop and expand Makkah to help accommodate for the growing number of visitors.
During past two hajj seasons, pilgrims were able to use the first stage of the first monorail in Makkah, dubbed as the Holy Rituals Train that links Makkah with the holy sites of Mina, `Arafah and Muzdalifah, all visited by massive tides of pilgrims.
The Makkah Clock Tower, the world's largest clock tower, with four glimmering 46 meter-across (151 feet) faces of high-tech composite tiles, some laced with gold, also started ticking last year.
Other projects were also initiated by Saudi authorities lately, to assure pilgrims' security and safety.
In November 2009, Riyadh declared it has completed a five-storey hi-tech Jamarat Bridge to ensure a smooth flow of millions of pilgrims during the pelting ritual of the annual hajj.
The bridge has 10 entrances and 12 exits over its four levels to allow the flow of 300,000 pilgrims per hour.
It is also equipped with technology to help authorities intervene in case of any deadly stampedes during the stoning ritual.
Other projects were also performed to expand the area on top of the holy Mount Arafat, develop the sewage and fire-fighting systems and upgrade health and transportation service.