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Saudi Arabia expects a million pilgrims to make the hajj

Deutsche Welle

  06 Jul 2022, 23:09
Photo: Collected

Pilgrims began converging on the holy city of Mecca for the largest hajj since the COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus led organizers to severely curtail access to the site that is considered one of the five pillars of Islam.One million Muslims are visiting Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the first hajj since the coronavirus pandemic led authorities in the conservative nation to restrict access to the holiest site in Islam. Saudi authorities have permitted 850,000 visitors from abroad into the kingdom for the annual pilgrimage which starts on Wednesday, a major step towards normalcy following strict pandemic restrictions. The decision to do so comes after two years during which access to the site was limited to Saudi residents. The one million number of pilgrims from Saudi Arabia and abroad is still considerably fewer than the 2.5 million figure of those who traveled to the holy city in 2019.

The hajj is considered one of the world’s largest events in terms of the number of participants. On Wednesday, those arriving carried umbrellas to block the 42 degrees Celsius (108 Fahrenheit) heat.

What restrictions are in place on those making the hajj this year? In order to be eligible for the hajj this year, pilgrims must be under 65 years of age and vaccinated against the virus as well as have tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of travel. A lottery system was implemented this year, with millions applying online. Pilgrims to the hajj will not be required to wear masks or adhere to social distancing guidelines as was the case in the last two years.

Prohibitions on touching or kissing the Kaaba, the black stone at the center of the holy site in Mecca, will remain, though. During the hajj, Muslims encircle and pray around the large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth, in a ritual known as the tawaf.

What have Saudi officials done to prepare for the hajj? On Wednesday, officials in Saudi Arabia inspected the holy site and stressed the country’s readiness as well as its goal of maintaining public health. In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, the Saudi authorities permitted only 1,000 people who were already residents of the kingdom to make the hajj.

Last year, authorities restricted the hajj to just 60,000 fully vaccinated Muslim residents of Saudi Arabia. The unprecedented curbs on attendance devastated some Muslims who had spent years saving for the chance to make the pilgrimage to the most significant site in their faith. Officials in Saudi Arabia currently report over 500 new coronavirus infections per day. Over 70% of Saudis have been vaccinated. The Saudi Health Ministry said 23 hospitals and 147 health centers were available in Mecca and Medina for visitors. Saudi Arabia now allows women to attend the hajj unaccompanied by a male relative, after dropping the requirement last year.

What does the hajj look like in normal times? Saudi authorities are keen to see the hajj return to the pre-pandemic normal. Pilgrims bring billions of dollars in income to the Arab state, the second highest source of income for Saudi Arabia after oil. According to the Koran, every Muslim of faith who is physically and financially able should make the hajj at least once in their lifetime. Five intense days of prayer and ritual await religious pilgrims in Mecca. The hajj traces the pilgrimage taken by Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago. His path, in turn, is believed to trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are known to Christians and Jews.


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