MECCA: Pilgrims began arriving in the holy city of Mecca on Saturday for the second reduced haj held during the coronavirus pandemic, circling IslamThe most sacred site in masks and on distant paths.
The kingdom is allowing just 60,000 fully vaccinated residents to participate, seeking to repeat last year’s success that saw no virus outbreaks during the five-day ritual.
This year’s haj, with participants chosen through a lottery, is larger than the shortened version organized in 2020, but drastically smaller than in normal times, stoking resentment among Muslims abroad who are once excluded. more.
After being loaded onto buses and taken to the Great Mosque of Mecca, the pilgrims began to perform the “tawaf”, the bypass of the Kaaba, a large cubic structure wrapped in black cloth embroidered in gold, towards which Muslims pray. of all the world.
Many carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat.
“Every three hours, 6,000 people enter to perform the arrival tawaaf,” Haj ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed told AFP. “After each group leaves, a sterilization process takes place at the sanctuary.”
The haj, which is usually one of the largest annual religious gatherings in the world, with the participation of some 2.5 million people in 2019, is one of the five pillars of Islam and should be performed by all Muslims with the media. at least once in life.
It consists of a series of religious rites, formally beginning on Sunday, which are completed over five days in and around the holiest city of Islam in western Saudi Arabia.
Among those chosen this year was Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil contractor based in the eastern city of Dammam, who was chosen for the ritual along with his wife and three adult children.
“We are very happy,” Ameen said.
“Many of our friends and family were rejected,” he told AFP.
Earlier this month, the haj ministry said it was working on “the highest levels of health precautions” in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
Like the other Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia is home to significant expatriate populations from South Asia, the Far East, Africa, and the Middle East.
“I feel like I won a lottery,” Egyptian pharmacist Mohammed El Ether said after being selected.
“This is a special and unforgettable moment in life. I thank God for giving me this opportunity, to be accepted among many people who applied,” the 31-year-old told AFP.
Chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online research system, the event is limited to those who have been fully vaccinated and are between the ages of 18 and 65 without chronic illnesses, according to the haj ministry.
The pilgrims will be divided into groups of just 20 “to restrict exposure to just those 20, limiting the spread of the infection,” the ministry’s undersecretary, Mohammad al-Bijawi, told official media.
Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including more than 8,000 deaths.
More than 20 million doses of vaccines have been administered in the country to more than 34 million people.
The haj took place last year on the smallest scale in modern history. Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said as many as 10,000 eventually participated.
No infections were reported as authorities set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to care for the pilgrims, who were taken to religious sites in small batches.
In normal years, the pilgrimage gathers large crowds at congested religious sites, but even the small events this year are seen as a potential contagion mechanism.
“The biggest challenge this haj season will be to get it through without any Covid-19 infection,” a doctor working at a Mecca hospital told AFP by phone.
Worshipers last year received amenity kits that included sterilized pebbles for the “stoning of Satan” ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer mat and the ihram, a traditional seamless white haj garment made of a material resistant to the bacteria.
Organizing the haj is a matter of prestige for the Saudi rulers, for whom the custody of Islam’s holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.
But the exclusion of pilgrims abroad has caused deep disappointment among Muslims around the world, who typically save for years to participate.
The haj ministry received distressing inquiries on Twitter from rejected applicants about the strictly controlled government lottery.
“We are still anxiously waiting to be accepted, as if we are facing an exam,” wrote one Twitter user.
And in addition to the many obstacles related to the virus, the price of participating in this year’s haj, including official taxes, is 12,000 rials ($ 3,200).