GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — For years, Ibrahim al-Dabba has been saving up money to make the umrah pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites in Saudi Arabia, which for many Palestinians is the only way to leave the impoverished and isolated Gaza Strip.
He registered with a tourism agency back in September, hoping to make the journey next month. But on Thursday, Saudi authorities took the unprecedented step of halting the pilgrimage over a virus outbreak that has infected more than 82,000 people worldwide and caused more than 2,800 deaths.
The decision could eventually force millions of Muslims around the world to postpone or cancel a journey that many have eagerly awaited for years. The outbreak could potentially affect the much larger annual hajj pilgrimage, set to begin in late July.
For the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, the Saudi decision closes one of the last avenues for leaving the narrow coastal strip, which has been ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas and blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007. The blockade, along with three wars and countless skirmishes between Palestinian militants and Israel, has devastated the local economy and spawned widespread despair.
An umrah pilgrimage from Gaza starts at around $1,300, a huge sum in a territory with 50% unemployment. Some Gazans sell jewelry or property to pay for it.
“We are imprisoned in Gaza, and for us, visiting Mecca and Medina feels like a prisoner receiving a visit from his family,” said al-Dabba, who had hoped to depart with his two sisters on March 8. “There, we release all the repression inside us.”
A woman who identified herself as Umm Khalil was supposed to travel out with the same group and has been eagerly awaiting the pilgrimage for more than a year. But on Thursday she raced to the travel agency to get her money back.
“We aren’t afraid of the virus because no one dies short of his fated lifetime,” she said. “But after the suspension everything came to a halt and we felt sad.”
The pain of missing out on the pilgrimage is particularly acute in Gaza, but is shared by Muslims worldwide.
Some languish for years on waiting lists to take part in the larger hajj pilgrimage, which all Muslims are required to make once in their lives if they are able. For many, the lesser umrah pilgrimage, which can be made year-round, is the only opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad and circle the black, cube-shaped Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam.
Frustration boiled over at Cairo International Airport in Egypt, where thousands of pilgrims had been preparing to depart. Airport officials said security forces had to bring in reinforcements and erect barriers in the terminal to hold back angry passengers. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, thousands of pilgrims were forced to postpone or cancel their trips at the last minute.
Achmad Warsito, one of many passengers grounded at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta international airport, said the pilgrimage had been a long-awaited journey for him and his family.
“No words can describe how I feel today,” he said. “We are very sad and disappointed.”
Yado Yarismano, an airport spokesman, said more than 2,700 Indonesian pilgrims were unable to fly out of Jakarta on Thursday alone. He said more than 1,100 others were left stranded en route to Saudi Arabia at airports in Malaysia and Singapore.
Indonesia has asked to be exempt from the suspension because it has not reported any infections, though there have been suspected cases. It even summoned the Saudi ambassador to press its case.
The virus has spread rapidly, with confirmed cases in 50 countries on six continents.
It spreads relatively easily from person to person, and carriers can go days without showing any symptoms, contributing to its rapid spread. Allowing thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the world to gather in crowded spaces for several days before returning home would risk accelerating the spread of the disease.
The ban will impose major costs of its own, in the form of empty hotels and businesses in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Many travel agencies in Muslim countries deal exclusively with pilgrims and are likely to take a major hit. The cancellation of the five-day hajj pilgrimage, which annually attracts more than 2 million people, would be even more cataclysmic.
In the meantime, some pilgrims took the ban in stride, saying they were too scared to go anyway.
“We were afraid of this trip because of the spread of this disease.”said Alaa Hamarneh, who lives in Jordan’s capital, Amman, and was supposed to embark on the umrah on March 3. “Anyway, thanks be to God.”
Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta and Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, contributed.