Muslims begin downsized Haj pilgrimage amid COVID-19 pandemic

MECCA, Saudi Arabia: Muslim pilgrims on Wednesday (Jul 29) begin the annual Haj, dramatically downsized this year as the Saudi hosts strive to prevent a coronavirus outbreak during the five-day pilgrimage.

The Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings.

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But this year only up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom will participate in the ritual, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world that attended last year.

"There are no security-related concerns in this pilgrimage, but (downsizing) is to protect pilgrims from the danger of the pandemic," said Khalid bin Qarar Al Harbi, Saudi Arabia's director of public security.

Pilgrims will be required to wear masks and observe social distancing during a series of religious rites that are completed over five days in the holy city of Mecca and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.

Those selected to take part in the Haj were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine as they began trickling into Mecca at the weekend.

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READ: COVID-19: Haj plans for Singapore pilgrims deferred to protect their health and safety, says MUIS

State media showed health workers sanitising their luggage, and some pilgrims reported being given electronic wristbands to allow authorities to monitor their whereabouts.

Workers, clutching brooms and disinfectant, were seen cleaning the area around the Kaaba, the structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque draped in gold-embroidered cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.

Workers clean the area around the Kaaba, the structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque towards which Muslims around the world pray. (Photo: AFP)

Haj authorities have cordoned off the Kaaba this year, saying pilgrims will not be allowed to touch it, to limit the chances of infection.

They also reported setting up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims.

The foreign press are barred from this year's Haj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to Mecca.

"INDESCRIBABLE FEELING"

Saudi authorities initially said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted for the Haj, but local media reports say as many as 10,000 will be allowed to take part.

Some 70 per cent of the pilgrims are foreigners residing in the kingdom, while the rest will be Saudi citizens, authorities said.

All worshippers were required to be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Mecca and will also have to quarantine after the pilgrimage as the number of cases in the kingdom nears 270,000 – one of the largest outbreaks in the Middle East.

They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilised pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims, according to a Haj ministry programme document.

Usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings, the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca this year has been drastically scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: AFP)

"I did not expect, among millions of Muslims, to be blessed with approval," Emirati pilgrim Abdullah Al Kathiri said in a video released by the Saudi media ministry.

"It is an indescribable feeling … especially since it is my first pilgrimage."

The Haj ministry said non-Saudi residents of the kingdom from around 160 countries competed in the online selection process but it did not say how many people applied.

Some disappointed applicants have complained that the government-run lottery was not clearly outlined and that no reason was gRead More – Source