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Saudi Arabia Halts Pilgrimage Travel Into Country Over Coronavirus Concerns


About 12 million Muslims across the world make pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca every year. But Saudi Arabia has halted international travel into the country and to Mecca over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. And that's affecting some Californians who want to make the trip. Cap Radio's Sarah Mizes-Tan reports from Sacramento.

IMAM KAMRAN ISLAM: Let me get out this other one for you as well.

SARAH MIZES-TAN, BYLINE: Digging through his closet, Imam Kamran Islam is looking for a specific item of clothing, a traditional robe called ihram that all Muslims wear on pilgrimage. He pulls out two folded white pieces of cloth.

ISLAM: This is the ihram. It's not just a fabric. The name for the fabric is actually the name for the state of mind and the state of heart that you're in to be in a - like, a sacred state.

MIZES-TAN: He says the ihram is one of the few items he'll pack when embarking on the two-week-long pilgrimage to holy sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina.

ISLAM: Really, you don't need to pack much else. The journey is designed to be an extremely simple journey.

MIZES-TAN: He's led groups on this pilgrimage several times in the last few years. According to the Koran, all Muslims are supposed to participate in a journey to Mecca at least once in their lifetime during a specific time of year called hajj. Some Muslims also make a pilgrimage called umrah, which they can do any time of year. But Islam isn't planning on any new trips this year, partly because of travel restrictions to Saudi Arabia as a result of the coronavirus. He says these restrictions also mean that many who were planning to travel to Mecca in the next few months have had to cancel their plans.

ISLAM: The umrah journey is a very spiritual journey; the hajj as well. The way we talk about it is that, you know, I was invited to God's house, or I wasn't this year, right? And so the years where you feel like you wanted to but couldn't can be, in some ways, spiritually really burdensome and devastating.

MIZES-TAN: One tour that was supposed to have left Los Angeles on March 5 has already been canceled. Adel Sayed has been part of that group. And while he's disappointed, he says he's trying to stay patient.

ADEL SAYED: I had planned this trip back in October of last year - of 2019 - and came to find out that it would have to be canceled. And it not happening the last minute was definitely, you know, a setback.

MIZES-TAN: And he says he's worried about the travel restrictions extending into July, when the highest number of Muslims travel to Mecca for the large traditional pilgrimage called the hajj.

SAYED: People save up their entire lives to do the hajj pilgrimage, you know? The average package is around 10- to 12,000 a person. To have folks change plans that have been planned literally years in advance, oftentimes lifetimes in advance - there's a lot at stake.

MIZES-TAN: But he says he's using the cancellation to take a step back and focus on his faith at home.

SAYED: Any time your travel plans get sidetracked or changed, it's definitely a hard feeling. I think this is even more so because for a lot of folks, it's more of a time for spiritual rejuvenation and really connecting with our roots and our faith. And so I think it's just taking it in stride and trying to find another time throughout the year.

MIZES-TAN: His trip hasn't been refunded yet. But Sayed expects the travel agency will be able to give him credit to rebook for next year.

For others who have trips planned later this year, many are still hoping the holy sites will be reopened in the next few months, like Gloria Wadud of Sacramento, who's looking forward to her first hajj with her husband this summer.

GLORIA WADUD: All praises to the God. My husband and I were able to save and able to afford it this year, so we got our visas, got our passport, got a group that we're going.

MIZES-TAN: The retired couple has been planning their trip since last year. She hopes the coronavirus will be controlled by July to allow visitors into Saudi Arabia again.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Mizes-Tan in Sacramento.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETER WOLF CRIER'S "CUT A HAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Mizes-Tan