June 23 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia said it won't allow international travelers to make a sacred Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca next month due to coronavirus concerns, a move that will exclude potentially hundreds of thousands of worshipers.
The annual Hajj pilgrimage is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some Muslims, and more than 70 percent of attendees come from outside Saudi Arabia.
Youssef bin Ahmed Al-Othaimeen, the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, said in a statement this year's event in late July will be held with "very limited numbers of different nationalities" living in Saudi Arabia "in a manner that ensures the safe holding of the ritual."
Al-Othaimeen said the decision was made by King Salman for pilgrims' health and safety.
Those who will be allowed to participate must be under age 65 and must submit to testing once they arrive in Mecca.
This is the first time since Saudi Arabia's founding in 1932 that officials have placed limits on the annual religious pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia has reported more than 161,000 coronavirus cases and 1,300 deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The Hajj pilgrimage is one of five pillars of Islam and is one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. The event is based on the Islamic calendar occurs about two months after the end of Ramadan, during the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah, but usually falls on different dates each year.
This year, the five-day event will begin in late July and end in early August. On average, about 2.5 million Muslims make the pilgrimage each year.