Up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom will participate in the ritual
MECCA • Mask-clad Muslim pilgrims yesterday began 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.
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.
Pilgrims walked into Mecca’s Grand Mosque in batches to begin the ritual with their first “tawaf”, or walk around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure draped in gold-embroidered cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray, state television showed.
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.
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. Using his bare hands, one worker was shown daubing its outer wall with perfume.
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.
“There are no security-related concerns in this pilgrimage, but (downsizing) is to protect pilgrims from the danger of the pandemic,”
said Saudi Arabia’s director of public security, Khalid Qarar Al-Harbi.
The foreign press are barred from this year’s haj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to Mecca.
Saudi authorities initially said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted for the haj, but local media reports said as many as 10,000 will be allowed to take part.
Some 70% of the pilgrims are foreigners residing in the kingdom,
while the rest are 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 document.
“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 foreign 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 given for their rejection.
The Haj Ministry has fielded a deluge of anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants.
But Haj Minister Mohammad Benten insisted the process was transparent, telling the Saudi- owned Al-Arabiya television that “health determinants” formed the basis of selection.
Despite the pandemic, many pilgrims consider it safer to participate in this year’s ritual without the usual colossal crowds cramming into tiny religious sites, which make it a logistical nightmare and a health hazard. Even in a regular year, the haj leaves pilgrims exposed to a host of illnesses.
The government scaled back the pilgrimage as it could be a major source of contagion, but the move will deepen the kingdom’s economic slump, analysts say.
The haj and the year-round umrah pilgrimages normally rake in some US$12 billion (RM50.88 billion) a year. — AFP