By Willy Kurniawan and Yuddy Cahya Budiman
JAKARTA (Reuters) – For Indonesian teachers Sutrisno and Sri Wahyuningsih, embarking on the once in a lifetime haj pilgrimage stirs bittersweet emotions.
After waiting more than a decade, Sri’s parents were supposed to make the trip to Mecca, Islam’s holiest site located in Saudi Arabia, in 2020 but that was cancelled because the coronavirus pandemic halted most international travel.
Making the haj is one of the foundational requirements of the religion and for Muslims who make the journey it is among the most important displays of their commitment to their faith.
Sri’s father will never make the journey after dying from a stroke in March and her mother, whose health is deteriorating, was denied permission to attend after Saudi Arabian authorities imposed an age limit of 65 as part of new rules to resume the intake of pilgrims this year.
Sutrisno, 54, and Sri, 51, are joyful at undertaking the haj in the place of Sri’s parents but they are saddened by the loss of Sri’s father and the possibility her mother will never complete the pilgrimage.
“It’s such a huge moral burden to me,” said Sri.
“But my mother has given her blessings to me and I have to think that this is a journey I have to go through, everything is Allah’s decision, and I have to go on the haj.”
Since last week, thousands of pilgrims have begun arriving in Saudi Arabia ahead of the peak of the haj on the Eid al-Adha holiday on July 9, part of an eventual 1 million that are expected to attend.
Under the quota system Saudi Arabia uses, the average wait to complete the haj for people in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, is 35 years.
This year, just over 100,000 Indonesians are making the trip, about half of the usual number, according to the Indonesian religious affairs ministry.
Preparations began in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in May, with pilgrims attending a preparatory briefing about the haj and the manasik, or the rites and ceremonies to be performed around Mecca, at what is one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings.
Sutrisno, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, gave an emotional speech to the students at his school in Jakarta, as part of a ritual pre-haj celebration.
He sold his car and saved up 105 million rupiah ($7,019) over nine years to fund the trip for his wife’s parents but the two-year hiatus cost them their chance to go together.
“We didn’t expect the pandemic to come so fast and stay for so long,” he said.
Many Indonesian Muslims are disappointed by the age cap and lower quota.
“Honestly, it breaks my heart as the haj organiser,” said Cecep Khairul Anwar, an official at Indonesia’s religious affairs ministry.
“But I hope this regulation only applies to this year.”
Sri still holds out hope for the next haj for her mother, who is 71.
“My first wish I would make is to pray for a long life for my mother, that she can stay healthy and can go there,” she said.
($1 = 14,960.0000 rupiah)
(Reporting by Willy Kurniawan and Yuddy Cahya Budiman; Writing by Stanley Widianto; Editing by Martin Petty and Christian Schmollinger)