Hajj rituals begin as pilgrims start arriving in Mina
Tents are set up to host pilgrims in Mina, near the holy city of Makkah on the eve of the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.–AFP
Annual Hajj rituals began today (Sunday) with the arrival of pilgrims in Mina, a day after they reached Makkah for the second downsized Hajj staged during the coronavirus pandemic, circling Islam's holiest site in masks and on distanced paths.
On Saturday, Hajj pilgrims began arriving at the four designated gathering points in Makkah. Arrivals have been divided into three categories, under strict protocols implemented by the authorities to minimise the risk of Covid-19 infections.
After the pilgrims had been checked by authorities, they were allowed to continue to the Grand Mosque in Makkah. At the Kaaba, pilgrims performed the tawaf while practising social distancing, circling the Kaaba anticlockwise seven times.
The Saudi kingdom is allowing only 60,000 fully vaccinated residents to take part, seeking to repeat last year’s success that saw no virus outbreak during the five-day ritual.
This year’s Hajj, with participants chosen through a lottery, is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020 but drastically smaller than in normal times, stoking resentment among Muslims abroad who are barred once again.
“Every three hours, 6,000 people enter to perform the tawaf of arrival,” hajj ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed told AFP. “After each group leaves, a sterilization process is carried out at the sanctuary.”
The Hajj, usually one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings with some 2.5 million people taking part in 2019, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means 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.
On Sunday the pilgrims started to arrive in Mina, around five kilometres away from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat, where it is believed that the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) delivered his final sermon.
Chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, the event is confined to those who have been fully vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, according to the hajj ministry.
The experience for some women in attendance has been boosted by them 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),” said pilgrim Bushra Ali Shah, a Pakistani resident of Jeddah.
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 just 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 over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.
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 sterilized pebbles for the “stoning of Satan” ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a traditional seamless white hajj garment, made from a 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, who typically save for years to take part.
The Hajj ministry received anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants about the tightly-controlled government lottery.
With inputs from Agencies