Indonesia’s 1st Hajj Pilgrims Set Off as Govt Issues MERS Virus Advice

Muslim pilgrims sleep at the building where they will cast stones at a pillar that symbolises Satan, during the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca October 28, 2012. (Reuters Photo/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Muslim pilgrims sleep at the building where they will cast stones at a pillar that symbolises Satan, during the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca October 28, 2012. (Reuters Photo/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Indonesia’s first group of Hajj pilgrims departed for Saudi Arabia today from a total of 10 staging posts across the country.

Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali and Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo presided over the departure ceremony at Pondok Gede Hajj boarding house in Jakarta.

The government released the first batch of 4,004 pilgrims from 10 departing points — Medan, North Sumatra; Batam, Riau Islands; Pondok Gede, Jakarta; Bekasi, West Java; Solo, Central Java; Surabaya, East Java; Makassar, South Sulawesi; Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara; Balikpapan, East Kalimantan and Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan.

Some 168,800 pilgrims will make the journey from Indonesia this year — 155,200 of whom will travel on regular tickets while 13,600 pilgrims have paid for a more luxurious spiritual experience.

There will, however, be fewer Indonesian mustati this year. Saudi Arabia took the decision to cut hajj quotas worldwide — Indonesia’s quota dropped by 20 percent — because of the considerable restoration and expansion work currently being undertaken at Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

Due to the cut, some 42,200 Indonesian Muslims who were prepared to make the hajj will have to wait until next year.

“I apologize to those who could not go to Mecca this year,” Suryadharma said at the departure ceremony. “This is something that we did not expect, but we promise these [pilgrims] will be in our priority for next year.”

Groups of pilgrims from Indonesia travel to Saudi Arabia between Sept. 10 and Oct 9. They will return to Indonesia between Oct 19 and Nov. 4.

“I wish you all a safe trip,” Joko said to the pilgrims at the Pondok Gede Hajj boarding house.

Garuda Indonesia and Saudi Arabia Airlines are the only carriers licensed to fly pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, while all other transportation and accommodation arrangements are handled through the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Crowd control has proved a longstanding difficulty at the hajj — a stampede on the last day of the 2006 pilgrimage killed 346 people — but the emergence of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a novel coronavirus that has killed more than 40 people in Saudi Arabia, has led Indonesia’s health ministry to prepare thermal scanners for returning pilgrims as part of its efforts to preclude the spread of the virus in the archipelago.

Tjandra Yoga Aditama, the health ministry’s director general for disease control and environmental health, said the Port Health Office had installed thermal scanners and prepared information for pilgrims as they depart for the Middle East.

“We remind all pilgrims to take sufficient rest, eat and drink well so they do not get dehydrated and keep a clean and healthy lifestyle,” he said. “We also recommend the use of face-masks during the pilgrimage.”

This year marks the first time that pilgrims from Jakarta, West Java, Lampung and Banten will begin their journey from Halim Perdanakusuma airport in East Jakarta.

Iwan Krishadianto, general manager of Halim airport said Angkasa Pura II — the operating company —had allocated Rp7 billion to support the hajj operation. Funds have been used to improve taxiway and apron lighting, as well as other support facilities, he said.

The Religious Affairs Ministry chose to use Halim airport instead of Soekarno-Hatta because the latter faces serious capacity issues and also because pilgrims have to arrive at least six hours before departure when using the capital’s main airport.

“Now, from Pondok Gede hajj boarding house it takes only 15 minutes to get to Halim Airport through special Air Force access road and 45 minutes from Bekasi without police escort,” he said.