Saudi Arabia stages second scaled-down hajj of coronavirus era

·4 min read

Hajj pilgrims streamed out of the holy city of Mecca towards Mina on Sunday, the second day of a massively scaled-down version of Islam's greatest pilgrimage, held in the shadow of coronavirus for the second year running.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia are only allowing 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents to take part, far from the vast crowds of some 2.5 million pilgrims who descend on Mecca in normal times.

Health authorities confirmed at a briefing late Sunday that not a single coronavirus case had been reported amongst the pilgrims.

Starting Saturday, groups of the faithful performed the "tawaf" at Mecca's Grand Mosque, circling the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.

After that, they made their way to Mina, where they were to spend the night. An official confirmed on Sunday that all the pilgrims were now in Mina.

Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, some five kilometres (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, and is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims.

Pilgrims were brought there Sunday on buses which were only half-filled to respect social distancing rules, and authorities provided 3,000 electric cars to transport the elderly and those with limited mobility.

"We have applied social distancing inside the camps where there are four pilgrims in each room. We have put barriers between each bed to apply social distancing," tour operator Hadi Fouad told AFP.

"For the common areas at the camp, like the prayer area and the cafeteria, we have assigned a security company whose guards are spread throughout the camp to make sure there is no crowding."

- Golden ticket -

In the high point of the hajj, worshippers will on Monday climb Mount Arafat.

Also known as the "Mount of Mercy", it is the site where it is believed that the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon. Worshippers will pray and recite the Koran there for several hours.

After descending the following day, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic "stoning of the devil".

The hajj, usually one of the world's largest annual religious gatherings, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.

This year's pilgrimage is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020, but is drastically smaller than in normal times, creating resentment among Muslims abroad who are barred once again.

Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, with the event confined to fully vaccinated adults aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses.

- 'A privilege' -

"I thank God that we received approval to come, even though we did not expect it because of the small number of pilgrims," said Abdulaziz bin Mahmoud, an 18-year-old Saudi.

Saddaf Ghafour, a 40-year-old Pakistani travelling with her friend, was among the women making the pilgrimage without a male "guardian", a requirement recently scrapped.

"It is a privilege to perform hajj among a very limited number of pilgrims," she said.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 509,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.

The hajj, which typically packs large crowds into congested religious sites, could have been a super-spreader event for the virus.

But the hajj ministry has said it is working on the "highest levels of health precautions" in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.

Pilgrims are being divided into groups of just 20 "to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection", ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi said.

Aside from strict social distancing measures, authorities have introduced a "smart hajj card" to allow contact-free access to camps, hotels and the buses to ferry pilgrims around religious sites.

The hajj went ahead last year on the smallest scale in modern history.

Authorities initially said that only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said up to 10,000 eventually took part.

This year, "public health teams are monitoring the health status of pilgrims around the clock upon their arrival in Mecca," said Sari Asiri, director of the hajj and umrah department at the health ministry.

Anyone found to be infected would be taken to isolation facilities, he added.

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