Muslim pilgrims arrive in Mecca for downsized hajj


Muslim pilgrims began arriving in Mecca on Saturday for the second downsized hajj taking part under Covid-19 restrictions, with just 60,000 fully-vaccinated residents of Saudi Arabia able to take part.   

Photos showed masked pilgrims circling Islam’s holiest site on socially distanced paths as the kingdom hoped to replicate last year’s hajj which saw no virus outbreak.

The participants were chosen through a lottery system from more than 558,000 applicants aged between 18 and 65. Applicants had to be fully vaccinated and not suffer from any chronic illness, the hajj ministry said.

While this year’s hajj is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020, it is drastically smaller than in normal times, stoking resentment among some abroad – who typically save for years before attending – who were barred once again.

After boarding buses to Mecca’s Grand Mosque, pilgrims began performing the ‘tawaf’, the circumambulation of the Kaaba – a large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth, towards which Muslims around the world pray.

Many attending carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat.

Muslim pilgrims began arriving in Mecca on Saturday for the second downsized hajj taking part under Covid-19 restrictions, with just 60,000 fully-vaccinated residents of Saudi Arabia able to take part

Photos showed masked pilgrims circling Islam's holiest site on socially distanced paths as the kingdom hoped to replicate last year's hajj which saw no virus outbreak

Photos showed masked pilgrims circling Islam’s holiest site on socially distanced paths as the kingdom hoped to replicate last year’s hajj which saw no virus outbreak

While this year's hajj is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020, it is drastically smaller than in normal times, stoking resentment among some abroad - who typically save for years before attending - who were barred once again

While this year’s hajj is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020, it is drastically smaller than in normal times, stoking resentment among some abroad – who typically save for years before attending – who were barred once again

‘Every three hours, 6,000 people enter to perform the tawaf of arrival,’ hajj ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed told AFP news agency.

‘After each group leaves, a sterilisation process is carried out at the sanctuary.’

The hajj, usually one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings with some 2.5million people taking part in 2019, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means to do so at least once in their lives.

It consists of a series of religious rites, formally starting on Sunday, which are completed over five days in Islam’s holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.

Among those selected to attend this year was Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil contractor based in the eastern city of Dammam, who was picked along with his wife and three adult children. 

‘We are overjoyed,’ Ameen said. ‘So many of our friends and relatives were rejected.’

As in other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia is home to significant expatriate populations from South Asia, the Asia Pacific region, Africa and the Middle East. 

‘I feel like I won a lottery,’ Egyptian pharmacist Mohammed El Eter said after being selected.

‘This is a special, unforgettable moment in one’s life. I thank God for granting me this chance, to be accepted among a lot of people who applied,’ the 31-year-old said.

The participants were chosen through a lottery system from more than 558,000 applicants aged between 18 and 65. Applicants had to be fully vaccinated and not suffer from any chronic illness, the hajj ministry said

After boarding buses to Mecca’s Grand Mosque, pilgrims began performing the ‘tawaf’, the circumambulation of the Kaaba (pictured) – a large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth, towards which Muslims around the world pray

The participants were chosen through a lottery system from more than 558,000 applicants aged between 18 and 65. Applicants had to be fully vaccinated and not suffer from any chronic illness, the hajj ministry said

The participants were chosen through a lottery system from more than 558,000 applicants aged between 18 and 65. Applicants had to be fully vaccinated and not suffer from any chronic illness, the hajj ministry said

The experience for some women attending has been boosted by no longer being required to be under male supervision - a stipulation dropped over 18 months ago

The experience for some women attending has been boosted by no longer being required to be under male supervision – a stipulation dropped over 18 months ago

On Sunday, the pilgrims will move on to Mina, about five kilometres (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat, where it is believed that the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon.

The experience for some women attending has been boosted by no longer being required to be under male supervision – a stipulation dropped over 18 months ago.

‘So many women are also going with me, so I am very proud that we are now independent [and] we don’t need any mahram (male guardian,’ Bushra Ali Shah, a Pakistani resident of Jeddah said.

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 20 ‘to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection,’ ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi told official media.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including some 8,000 deaths.

Around 20million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of more than 34 million people.

The hajj went ahead last year on the smallest scale in modern history. Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed to attend, although local media reported that up to 10,000 eventually took part.

Pilgrims are being divided into groups of 20 'to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection,' ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi told official media

Pilgrims are being divided into groups of 20 ‘to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection,’ ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi told official media

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including some 8,000 deaths. Around 20million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of more than 34 million people

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including some 8,000 deaths. Around 20million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of more than 34 million people

But barring overseas pilgrims has caused deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, many of whom will have saved for years in order to take part

But barring overseas pilgrims has caused deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, many of whom will have saved for years in order to take part

No infections were reported as authorities set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater for the pilgrims, who were taken to the religious sites in small batches.  

In normal years, the pilgrimage packs large crowds into congested religious sites, but even this year’s downscaled events are seen as a potential mechanism for contagion.

Worshippers were last year given amenity kits including sterilised pebbles for the ‘stoning of the devil’ ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram – a traditional seamless white hajj garment – made from bacteria-resistant material.

Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.

But barring overseas pilgrims has caused deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, many of whom will have saved for years in order to take part.

The hajj ministry received anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants about the tightly-controlled government lottery. 

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