Muslim pilgrims circled Islam’s holiest site along socially distanced paths Sunday in the final ritual of the hajj, the smallest in modern history as Saudi authorities sought to prevent a coronavirus outbreak. Holy sites which have normally been a bustling hub for religious tourists were unusually quiet this time. This resulted in the smallest hajj in recent history due to the pandemic.
Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part in the hajj, a far cry from the 2.5 million who took part in the five-day annual pilgrimage last year.
Sombre processions at Hajj amidst pandemic
Masked pilgrims threw pebbles at a wall symbolizing Satan in Mina, close to the holy city of Mecca, on the final day of hajj, state media reported. Usually, this part of the Hajj rituals is overwrought with people clamouring to be able to stone the pillars at mina.
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Instead of gathering the pebbles themselves as in past years, they were handed the pilgrims were handed the stones; bagged and sterilized by hajj authorities, to protect against the novel coronavirus. This is part of the precautions that have been taken to protect the populations against the pandemic.
Some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world flock annually to the cities of Mecca and Medina for the week-long ritual scheduled to begin in late July. This year, due to the pandemic this number was the smallest in recent history.
Saudi Officials are adapting to the new situation
Pilgrims returned to the Grand Mosque in Mecca later Sunday to perform a final “tawaf”, or circling of the Kaaba — a cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.
Holding the ritual in the shadow of the pandemic required “double efforts” by Saudi authorities, King Salman said on Friday after being discharged from hospital following surgery to remove his gall bladder.
Touching or kissing the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, will be banned during the Hajj this year, and a physical distancing space of a metre and a half between each pilgrim during the rituals including mass prayers and while in the Kaaba circling area will be imposed, according to a statement by the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).
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In a virtual news conference on Tuesday, Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten said the government is still in the process of reviewing the number of overall pilgrims allowed, saying they could be “around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more”.
“The hajj this year was restricted to a very limited number of people from multiple nationalities, ensuring the ritual was completed despite the difficult circumstances,” said the kingdom’s 84-year-old ruler, thus making it the smallest hajj in recent history due to the pandemic.
No cases reported at holy sites during Hajj
Health authorities said no coronavirus cases were reported at the holy sites during the hajj.
The pilgrims, who were required to observe social distancing and subjected to regular temperature checks, will go into mandatory quarantine after the hajj, authorities said.
The ritual, 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. Due to the pandemic and this being the smallest hajj in recent history not many people were able to fulfil what is a once in a lifetime duty.
But local media said up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom were participating this year. This group of participants is usually constituted with people from around the world. A number that is significantly smaller this year due to the Pandemic. This may have also hurt the country’s yearly earnings that are accumulated due to the large influx of religious tourists.
The hajj ministry had initially said around 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed. The smallest this number has been in decades.
The hajj typically costs thousands of dollars for pilgrims, who often save for years as well as endure long waiting lists for a chance to attend.
But this year, the Saudi government is covering the expenses of all pilgrims, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation and health care, worshippers said; adding to the losses that the Saudi government losses this year.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk