The kingdom of oil-rich nation Saudi Arabia has advised pilgrims to the annual Mecca Hajj season to defer to next year their plans of going to the holy city, citing delayed expansion works at the Grand Mosque as well as fears over the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
The Saudi Arabia government, in a series of announcements through the Holy Qur'an television channel aired from Makkah, it urged pilgrims to postpone their plans for this year.
"By making this announcement our government is not preventing anybody from Haj, 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 Haj & Umrah Committee at Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Arab News.
Earlier, the government slashed the number of foreign pilgrims by 20 per cent and domestic pilgrims 50 per cent for the year 2013.
The government forecast this year's pilgrims to reach around 4 million, based from the official 2012 figures of 3.161 million.
Mr Al-Qurashi said the mataf or the place surrounding the Holy Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque can only accommodate 39,000 people per hour. A number larger than that would congest the interior of the mosque.
"Once the mataf expansion is completed, it can accommodate more than 130,000 pilgrims per hour. 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," he explained.
Although it was not mentioned when the expansion works will finish, "the period for cutting the number of pilgrims will not exceed two years," Hatem Qadi, deputy Haj minister and spokesman of the ministry, said.
The pilgrim slash is also part of the government's measures to control the MERS-CoV which could turn into a potential pandemic fanned by the expected congestion during the annual Mecca Hajj season.
MERS-CoV had killed 33 people since September 2012 around the world, 28 of which came from Saudi Arabia.