Pilgrims ‘Stone The Devil’ With Sanitised Pebbles In Hajj Ritual

Muslim worshippers cast pebbles during a symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, as part of the Hajj pilgrimage in Mina, near Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, on July 20, 2021. 
Fayez Nureldine / AFP

 

Muslim pilgrims cast sanitised pebbles Tuesday as they took part in the “stoning of the devil”, the last major ritual of this year’s hajj which is again under tight coronavirus restrictions.

From first light, small groups of pilgrims made their way across the Valley of Mina near Mecca in western Saudi Arabia to symbolically “humiliate” the devil at the Jamrah al-Aqaba mosque.

Wearing masks and the ihram, the pilgrim’s seamless white garment, they each threw seven stones at a pillar symbolising Satan, taking them from sealed bags provided by the authorities.

“All my life I dreamt of going on the hajj, and I still can’t believe that the dream has come true,” 38-year-old Syrian pilgrim Lina told AFP, describing it as “the happiest day of my life”.

The stoning ritual has in past years led to deadly stampedes, as millions of participants converge on a tight space, but on Tuesday crowds were sparse and there was only a light security presence.

The pandemic has for a second year forced Saudi authorities to dramatically downsize the hajj and just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom are taking part — up from 10,000 last year.

“From the beginning, our priority has been the safety of pilgrims, and for this reason, we decided to limit their numbers to 60,000 to ensure that the precautions are enforced and everyone is safe,” Saudi Health Minister Tawfiq Al Rabiah told AFP.

“We are monitoring the situation continuously,” he said late Monday, adding that not a single case of coronavirus had been detected so far among pilgrims.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims who have the means at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, with 2.5 million taking part in 2019.

 Royal approval

 

Muslim worshippers cast stones as part of a symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mina, near Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, on July 20, 2021. 
Fayez Nureldine / AFP

 

Hosting the pilgrimage 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.

“If we can guarantee that there will be full control (of Covid) and ensure the safety of pilgrims too, which is a priority for the kingdom and its leaders, the hajj can happen again in the future as it was before,” the health minister said.

After the stoning ritual, pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque in Mecca to perform a final “tawaf” or circling of the Kaaba.

The Kaaba is a cubic structure that is the focal point of Islam and draped in a gold-embroidered black cloth.

State media said that an army of 3,500 workers was tasked with sterilising the Grand Mosque ten times a day to prevent any spread of infection.

This year’s hajj is being held at a time when new variants of the virus are causing global concern. Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 510,000 cases of coronavirus including 8,089 deaths.

The participants were chosen in a lottery among 558,000 Saudi residents and nationals, who had to be between 18 and 65 years old, vaccinated and free of chronic diseases.

All the workers mobilised for the hajj have been fully vaccinated as well, authorities say.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said Monday in a televised speech that “the kingdom’s efforts to limit the effects of the coronavirus have been successful.”

The strict preventive measures “have enabled pilgrims to perform the hajj,” he added.

-AFP

In Mecca, Women Set Off On Hajj As ‘Guardian’ Rule Cast Aside

A Muslim worshipper prays as she arrives to cast pebbles during a symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, as part of the Hajj pilgrimage in Mina, near Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, on July 20, 2021. – From first light, small groups of pilgrims made their way across the Valley of Mina near Mecca in western Saudi Arabia to symbolically “humiliate” the devil at the Jamrah al-Aqaba mosque. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

 

 

Bushra Shah, a 35-year-old Pakistani, says she is realising a childhood dream by making the great pilgrimage to Mecca, and under new rules she’s doing it without a male “guardian”.

The hajj ministry has officially allowed women of all ages to make the pilgrimage without a male relative, known as a “mehrem”, on the condition that they go in a group.

The decision is part of social reforms rolled out by de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is trying to shake off the kingdom’s austere image and open up its oil-reliant economy.

Since his rise to power, women have been allowed to drive and to travel abroad without a male guardian — even against a backdrop of a relentless crackdown against critics of his rule, including women’s rights activists.

“It’s like a dream come true. My childhood dream was to make the hajj,” Shah told AFP, before setting off from her home in Jeddah, the major port city in western Saudi Arabia.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is a must for able-bodied Muslims with the means to do so at least once in their lifetime.

For the young mother, making the pilgrimage with her husband and child would have been a distraction that would have prevented her from “concentrating completely on the rites”.

Shah is one of 60,000 pilgrims chosen to take part in this year’s hajj, which has been dramatically scaled down for the second year running because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Only citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia, chosen in a lottery, are taking part. Officials have said that 40 percent of this year’s pilgrims are women.

 

Worshippers perform the al-Adha prayers on the first day of the feast around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand mosque in the holy Saudi city of Mecca, on July 19, 2021. – The al-Adha, or “Feast of Sacrifice”, marks the end of the annual pilgrimage or Hajj to the Saudi holy city of Mecca and is celebrated in remembrance of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son to God. (Photo by – / AFP)

 

– ‘Gift from heaven’ –
“Many women will also come with me. I am very proud that we are now independent and do not need a guardian,” Shah said.

Her husband, Ali Murtada, said he “strongly encouraged” his wife to make the trip alone, after the government’s decision to ban children from participating in the hajj this year.

He will stay in Jeddah to look after their child.

“We decided that one of us should go. Maybe she will be pregnant next year or maybe the children will still not be allowed to participate,” the 38-year-old said.

It was unclear when the hajj ministry lifted the restriction, and some women have reported that travel agencies are still reluctant to accept women travelling without a male companion for the hajj.

Some even posted advertisements ruling out groups of unaccompanied women, in a sign of how the dizzying social changes are meeting some resistance in the deeply conservative kingdom.

Authorities previously required the presence of a male guardian for any woman pilgrim under the age of 45, preventing many Muslim women around the world from making the hajj.

That was the case for Marwa Shaker, an Egyptian woman living in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

“Hajj without a guardian is a miracle,” the 42-year-old, who works for a civil society organisation, told AFP.

Now travelling to Mecca with three of her friends, the mother of three had tried several times to make the pilgrimage before the pandemic. But she was unable to because her husband had already been and was not permitted to go again so soon.

 

Muslim pilgrims gather around Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy), southeast of the holy city of Mecca, during the climax of the Hajj pilgrimage amid the COVID-19 pandemic, on July 19, 2021. – Muslim pilgrims gathered at Mount Arafat today in the high point of this year’s hajj, being held in downsized form and under coronavirus restrictions for the second year running. Just 60,000 people, all citizens or residents of Saudi Arabia, have been selected to take part in this year’s hajj, with foreign pilgrims again barred. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

 

“I feel enormously joyful. God has called me despite all the obstacles,” she said.

For Sadaf Ghafoor, a British-Pakistani doctor, travelling without a male guardian was the “only option”.

“We couldn’t leave the children alone,” the 40-year-old said of her three youngsters.

Her husband decided to stay behind, and Ghafoor headed to Mecca with a neighbour.

“It was not easy to take the decision to go alone… but we took this opportunity as a blessing,” she said.

Pilgrims Flock To Mount Arafat In High Point Of Pandemic-Era Hajj

Muslim pilgrims pray next to Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy), southeast of the holy city of Mecca, during the climax of the Hajj pilgrimage amid the COVID-19 pandemic, next to July 19, 2021 PHOTO: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP

 

Muslim pilgrims gathered at Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat on Monday in the high point of this year’s hajj, being held in downsized form and under coronavirus restrictions for the second year running.

Just 60,000 people, all citizens or residents of Saudi Arabia, have been selected to take part in this year’s hajj, with foreign pilgrims again barred.

The mask-clad faithful, who had spent the night in camps in the Valley of Mina, converged on Mount Arafat where it is believed the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon, for the most important of the hajj rituals.

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Afternoon prayers, worshippers traditionally ascend the 70-metre (230-foot) high hill and its surrounding plain for hours of prayers and Koran recitals to atone for their sins, staying there until the evening.

After sunset, they head to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they will sleep under the stars before performing the symbolic “stoning of the devil”.

The scene was dramatically different to past pilgrimages, which have drawn up to 2.5 million people, and this year the mountain was free of the huge crowds that descend on it in normal years.

 

– Privileged few –

Being one of the lucky few “gives you a feeling that our God is forgiving and has chosen us to be in this place,” said Selma Mohamed Hegazi, a 45-year-old Egyptian. “God willing, our prayers will be accepted.

“My whole body is shivering,” she told AFP as she stood among the other emotional pilgrims, wearing the ihram, the traditional seamless white garment worn during the hajj.

Worshippers described a sense of tranquility descending on the mountain, also known as the “Mount of Mercy”.

“To be one of only 60,000 doing hajj ….I feel like I am part of a (privileged) group that was able to reach this place,” said Baref Siraj, a 58-year-old Saudi national.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims with the means to travel at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.

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.

Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, with the event confined to fully vaccinated adults aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses.

– Safety first –

Authorities are seeking to repeat last year’s successful event which took place on the smallest scale in modern history with just 10,000 participants, but which saw no virus outbreak.

Saudi health authorities said Sunday that not a single Covid case had been reported amongst the pilgrims this year.

The kingdom has so far recorded more than 509,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.

The hajj, which typically packs large crowds into congested religious sites, could have been a super-spreader event for the virus.

But Saudi Arabia has said it is deploying  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 potential exposure, and a “smart hajj card” has been introduced to allow contact-free access to camps, hotels, and the buses to ferry pilgrims around religious sites.

Black-and-white robots have been deployed to dispense bottles of sacred water from the Zamzam spring in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, built around the Kaaba, the black cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.

Ibrahim Siam, a 64-year-old Egyptian pilgrim who comes from Dammam in the east of the country, said that high-tech procedures introduced to manage the hajj “have made things a lot easier.”

AFP

Saudi Arabia Stages Second Scaled-Down Hajj Of COVID-19 Era

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand mosque in the holy Saudi city of Mecca, on July 17, 2021 during the annual hajj pilgrimage. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

 

Hajj pilgrims streamed out of the holy city of Mecca towards Mina on Sunday, the second day of a massively scaled-down version of Islam’s greatest pilgrimage, held in the shadow of coronavirus for the second year running.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia are only allowing 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents to take part, far from the vast crowds of some 2.5 million pilgrims who descend on Mecca in normal times.

Health authorities confirmed at a briefing late Sunday that not a single coronavirus case had been reported amongst the pilgrims.

Starting Saturday, groups of the faithful performed the “tawaf” at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, circling the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.

After that, they made their way to Mina, where they were to spend the night. An official confirmed on Sunday that all the pilgrims were now in Mina.

Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, some five kilometres (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, and is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims.

READ ALSO: Israel Removes Cancer Patients From Third Vaccine Jab List

Pilgrims were brought there Sunday on buses which were only half-filled to respect social distancing rules, and authorities provided 3,000 electric cars to transport the elderly and those with limited mobility.

“We have applied social distancing inside the camps where there are four pilgrims in each room. We have put barriers between each bed to apply social distancing,” tour operator Hadi Fouad told AFP.

“For the common areas at the camp, like the prayer area and the cafeteria, we have assigned a security company whose guards are spread throughout the camp to make sure there is no crowding.”

– Golden ticket –

In the high point of the hajj, worshippers will on Monday climb Mount Arafat.

Also known as the “Mount of Mercy”, it is the site where it is believed that the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon. Worshippers will pray and recite the Koran there for several hours.

After descending the following day, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic “stoning of the devil”.

The hajj, usually one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.

This year’s pilgrimage is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020, but is drastically smaller than in normal times, creating resentment among Muslims abroad who are barred once again.

Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, with the event confined to fully vaccinated adults aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses.

– ‘A privilege’ –

“I thank God that we received approval to come, even though we did not expect it because of the small number of pilgrims,” said Abdulaziz bin Mahmoud, an 18-year-old Saudi.

Saddaf Ghafour, a 40-year-old Pakistani travelling with her friend, was among the women making the pilgrimage without a male “guardian”, a requirement recently scrapped.

“It is a privilege to perform hajj among a very limited number of pilgrims,” she said.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 509,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.

The hajj, which typically packs large crowds into congested religious sites, could have been a super-spreader event for the virus.

But 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 said.

Aside from strict social distancing measures, authorities have introduced a “smart hajj card” to allow contact-free access to camps, hotels and the buses to ferry pilgrims around religious sites.

The hajj went ahead last year on the smallest scale in modern history.

Authorities initially said that only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said up to 10,000 eventually took part.

This year, “public health teams are monitoring the health status of pilgrims around the clock upon their arrival in Mecca,” said Sari Asiri, director of the hajj and umrah department at the health ministry.

Anyone found to be infected would be taken to isolation facilities, he added.

AFP

Saudi To Allow 60,000 Vaccinated Residents To Perform Hajj

Photo used to illustrate the story. Worshippers performing al-Fajr prayer at the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque complex in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca. PHOTO: STR / AFP

 

Saudi Arabia announced Saturday it will allow 60,000 vaccinated residents of the kingdom to perform the annual hajj, state media reported.

The hajj ministry said this year’s pilgrimage would be “open for nationals and residents of the kingdom, limited to 60,000 pilgrims”, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

The pilgrimage, scheduled to be held at the end of July, would be limited to those who have been vaccinated and are below 65 years of age with no chronic illnesses, it said.

It will be the second year in a row that the kingdom hosts a downscaled hajj amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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The hajj — a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime — typically packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites and could be a major source of contagion.

Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part last year, a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated in the five-day annual pilgrimage in 2019.

In a relaxation of coronavirus curbs last October, Saudi Arabia opened the Grand Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months and partially resumed the all-year-round umrah pilgrimage.

The limit on umrah pilgrims is 20,000 a day, with a total of 60,000 worshippers allowed to perform daily prayers at the mosque.

The umrah usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year. Authorities said the umrah would be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.

The revered Black Stone in the Kaaba — which is customary but not mandatory to touch during the pilgrimage — remains out of reach.

 

– ‘Highest precautions’ –

“In light of what the whole world is witnessing with the coronavirus pandemic… and the emergence of new variants, the relevant authorities have continued to monitor the global health situation,” the hajj ministry said Saturday.

“Considering the large crowds that perform hajj, spending long periods of time in multiple and specific places… required the highest levels of health precautions,” it added in the statement carried by SPA.

A scaled-down hajj represents a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.

The hajj and the year-round umrah pilgrimages together rake in some $12 billion (10.3 billion euros) annually.

Last year, the foreign press were barred from the hajj, usually a huge global media event.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 460,000 coronavirus infections, including 7,536 deaths.

The health ministry says it has administered more than 15 million coronavirus vaccine doses, in a country with a population of over 34 million.

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 a series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom’s management of the pilgrimage.

AFP

COVID-19: Saudi To Allow Only ‘Immunised’ Pilgrims To Mecca

File photo: A picture taken on July 29, 2020 shows pilgrims holding coloured umbrellas along matching coloured rings separating them as a COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic measure while circumambulating around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the centre of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, at the start of the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. (Photo by STR / AFP)

 

Saudi authorities said Monday only people immunised against Covid-19 will be allowed to perform the year-round umrah pilgrimage from the start of Ramadan, the holy fasting month for Muslims.

The hajj and umrah ministry said in a statement that three categories of people would be considered “immunised” — those who have received two doses of the vaccine, those administered a single dose at least 14 days prior, and people who have recovered from the infection.

Only those people will be eligible for permits to perform umrah, as well as to attend prayers in the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca.

It added that the condition also applies for entry into the Prophet’s Mosque in the holy city of Medina.

The ministry said the policy starts with Ramadan, which is due to begin later this month, but it was unclear how long it would last.

It was also not clear whether the policy, which comes amid an uptick in coronavirus infections in the kingdom, would be extended to the annual hajj pilgrimage later this year.

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Saudi Arabia has reported more than 393,000 coronavirus infections and 6,700 deaths from Covid-19.

The kingdom’s health ministry said it has administered more than five million coronavirus vaccines, in a country with a population of over 34 million.

Last month, King Salman replaced the hajj minister, months after the kingdom hosted the smallest hajj in modern history due to the pandemic.

Mohammad Benten was relieved from his post and replaced by Essam bin Saeed, according to a royal decree published by official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

The kingdom hosted the hajj in late July last year.

Only 10,000 Muslim residents of Saudi Arabia itself were allowed to take part, a far cry from the 2.5 million Muslims from around the world who participated in 2019.

It is unclear how many pilgrims will be allowed for hajj this year.

According to the pro-government Okaz newspaper, only vaccinated pilgrims will likely be permitted this year.

In a relaxation of coronavirus curbs last October, Saudi Arabia opened the Grand Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months and partially resumed the umrah pilgrimage.

The umrah usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year.

Authorities said the umrah will be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.

AFP

Saudi To Allow Around 1,000 Pilgrims To Perform Hajj -Minister

Muslim pilgrims perform the “Tawaf al-Ifada”, a mandatory circumambulation around the Kaaba (the Cube), Islam’s holiest shrine, at the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on August 11, 2019, following their descent from Mount Arafat.
FETHI BELAID / AFP

 

 

Saudi Arabia will allow around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom to perform the hajj this year, a minister said Tuesday, after it announced the ritual would be scaled back due to coronavirus.

“The number of pilgrims will be around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more,” Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten told reporters.

“The number won’t be in tens or hundreds of thousands” this year, he added.

 

 

-AFP

Muslims Disappointed, But Accepting, As Saudi Scales Back Hajj

A picture taken June 23, 2020 shows a few worshippers performing al-Fajr prayer at the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque complex in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca. – Saudi Arabia has announced it will hold a “very limited” hajj this year, with pilgrims already in the kingdom allowed to perform the annual ritual as it moves to curb the biggest coronavirus outbreak in the Gulf. (Photo by STR / AFP)

 

 

Muslims expressed disappointment Tuesday at Saudi Arabia’s decision to scale back this year’s hajj pilgrimage, but many accepted it was necessary as the kingdom battles a major coronavirus outbreak.

Riyadh said Monday the hajj would be “very limited” with only pilgrims already in the country allowed to perform the ritual, marking the first time in modern Saudi history that foreign visitors have been barred.

The move had looked inevitable for some time and several countries had already pulled out, but the announcement nevertheless added to disappointment for Muslims who invest huge sums and face long waits to go on hajj.

“My hopes of going to (the holy Saudi city of Mecca) were so high,” said Kamariah Yahya, 68, from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, which had already barred its citizens from the hajj earlier this month.

“I’ve been preparing for years. But what can I do? This is Allah’s will — it’s destiny.”

A group representing about 250 companies in Indonesia that organise Saudi pilgrimages said it understood that the five-day event, scheduled for the end of July, would be “too risky” at the moment.

But Syam Resfiadi, chairman of the Union of Hajj and Umrah Organisers, told AFP some of his group’s members had “started laying off employees or even shutting down their operations — they’ve had no income for months”.

A must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, the pilgrimage sees millions of people pack into congested religious sites and could have become a major source of virus transmission.

– ‘Shattered’ –
Shahadat Hossain Taslim, head of a group representing Bangladeshi hajj travel agencies, said “many people will be shattered” by the decision but it was for the best.

“Unlike other countries, the majority of Bangladeshi pilgrims are elderly people, and they are vulnerable to COVID-19,” he said.

In neighbouring India, the minister for minority affairs said more than 200,000 people had applied to go on hajj in 2020, and they would receive a full refund of any money deposited for the pilgrimage.

The hajj ministry in Saudi Arabia, where virus cases have surpassed 161,000, has said the pilgrimage will still be open to people of various nationalities already in the country but did not specify a number.

The decision will likely appease domestic pilgrims but it prompted renewed questions about Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites — the kingdom’s most powerful source of political legitimacy.

A series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has led to criticism of the kingdom’s management of the hajj.

Mohamad Azmi Abdul Hamid, from charity the Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organizations, said Muslim nations should have been allowed to take a “collective decision”, rather then it being left to Riyadh.

“It’s high time (the holy cities of Mecca and Medina) are managed by an international board represented by Muslim countries,” he told AFP.

The decision also risks annoying hardline Muslims, for whom religion may trump health concerns.

Despite the disappointment, some Muslims were already looking ahead to 2021 and hoping they would be able to perform the pilgrimage then.

“I’m still hoping to go on hajj next year, and pray that I’ll stay healthy until then,” said Yahya in Indonesia.

-AFP

Saudi Arabia Bars International Travellers From Hajj Over COVID-19

This file photo taken on March 05, 2020 shows the white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba, inside Mecca's Grand Mosque, empty of worshippers. ABDEL GHANI BASHIR / AFP
This file photo, taken on March 05, 2020. shows the white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba, inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque, empty of worshippers. ABDEL GHANI BASHIR / AFP

 

Saudi Arabia on Monday announced it would hold a “very limited” hajj this year, excluding international travelers.

Only pilgrims already in the kingdom will be allowed to perform the annual ritual as it moves to curb the coronavirus pandemic, the Kingdom said.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, represents a major potential source of contagion as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.

But the decision to limit the hajj, scheduled for late July, is fraught with political and economic peril and comes after several Muslim nations pulled out of the ritual.

“It was decided to hold the pilgrimage this year with very limited numbers… with different nationalities in the kingdom,” the official Saudi Press Agency said, citing the hajj ministry.

“This decision is taken to ensure the hajj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective… and in accordance with the teachings of Islam in preserving lives.”

The decision to limit the event comes as Saudi Arabia struggles to contain a spike in infections, which have now risen to some 161,000 cases and more than 1,300 deaths.

But it risks annoying Muslim hardliners for whom religion trumps health concerns.

A watered-down hajj would also represent a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, which is already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.

The smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage was already suspended in March.

Together, they add $12 billion to the Saudi economy every year, according to government figures.

Monday’s announcement that Saudi Arabia will hold a limited hajj would likely disappoint millions of Muslim pilgrims around the world who often invest their life savings and endure long waiting lists to make the trip.

It could also trigger renewed scrutiny of the Saudi custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites — the kingdom’s most powerful source of political legitimacy.

A series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom’s management of the hajj.

A full-scale hajj, which last year drew about 2.5 million pilgrims, was unlikely after authorities advised Muslims in late March to defer preparations due to the fast-spreading disease.

Earlier this month, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, emerged as one of the first countries to withdraw from the pilgrimage after pressing Riyadh for clarity, with a minister calling it a “very bitter and difficult decision”.

Malaysia, Senegal and Singapore followed suit with similar announcements.

 

AFP

Saudi Faces Perilous Hajj Call As COVID-19 Spikes

This picture taken early on May 24, 2020 shows an Imam in a podium while Saudi security forces members, some clad in masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, stand between rows of worshippers gathering before the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca to attend the prayers of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday which starts at the conclusion of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. AFP

 

Saudi Arabia is expected to scale back or call off this year’s hajj pilgrimage for the first time in its modern history, observers say, a perilous decision as coronavirus cases spike.

Muslim nations are pressing Riyadh to give its much-delayed decision on whether the annual ritual will go ahead as scheduled in late July.

But as the kingdom negotiates a call fraught with political and economic risks in a tinderbox region, time is running out to organise logistics for one of the world’s largest mass gatherings.

A full-scale hajj, which last year drew about 2.5 million pilgrims, appears increasingly unlikely after authorities advised Muslims in late March to defer preparations due to the fast-spreading disease.

“It’s a toss-up between holding a nominal hajj and scrapping it entirely,” a South Asian official in contact with Saudi hajj authorities told AFP.

A Saudi official told AFP: “The decision will soon be made and announced.”

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, withdrew from the pilgrimage this month after pressing Riyadh for clarity, with a minister calling it a “very bitter and difficult decision”.

Malaysia, Senegal and Singapore followed suit with similar announcements.

Many other countries with Muslim populations — from Egypt and Morocco to Turkey, Lebanon and Bulgaria — have said they are still awaiting Riyadh’s decision.

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In countries like France, faith leaders have urged Muslims to “postpone” their pilgrimage plans until next year due to the prevailing risks.

The hajj, a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, represents a major potential source of contagion as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.

But any decision to limit or cancel the event risks annoying Muslim hardliners for whom religion trumps health concerns.

It could also trigger renewed scrutiny of the Saudi custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites — the kingdom’s most powerful source of political legitimacy.

A series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom’s management of the hajj.

“Saudi Arabia is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Umar Karim, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told AFP.

“The delay in announcing its decision shows it understands the political consequences of cancelling the hajj or reducing its scale.”

– ‘Buying time’ –

The kingdom is “buying time” as it treads cautiously, the South Asian official said.

“At the last minute if Saudi says ‘we are ready to do a full hajj’, (logistically) many countries will not be in a position” to participate, he said.

Amid an ongoing suspension of international flights, a reduced hajj with only local residents is a likely scenario, the official added.

A decision to cancel the hajj would be a first since the kingdom was founded in 1932.

Saudi Arabia managed to hold the pilgrimage during previous outbreaks of Ebola and MERS.

But it is struggling to contain the virus amid a serious spike in daily cases and deaths since authorities began easing a nationwide lockdown in late May.

In Saudi hospitals, sources say intensive care beds are fast filling up and a growing number of health workers are contracting the virus as the total number of cases has topped 130,000. Deaths surpassed 1,000 on Monday.

To counter the spike, authorities this month tightened lockdown restrictions in the city of Jeddah, gateway to the pilgrimage city of Mecca.

– ‘Heartbroken’ –

“The hajj is the most important spiritual journey in the life of any Muslim, but if Saudi Arabia proceeds in this scenario it will not only exert pressure on its own health system,” said Yasmine Farouk from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It could also be widely held responsible for fanning the pandemic.”

A cancelled or watered-down hajj would represent a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, which is already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.

The smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage was already suspended in March.

Together, they add $12 billion to the Saudi economy every year, according to government figures.

A negative decision would likely disappoint millions of Muslim pilgrims around the world who often invest their life savings and endure long waiting lists to make the trip.

“I can’t help but be heartbroken — I’ve been waiting for years,” Indonesian civil servant Ria Taurisnawati, 37, told AFP as she sobbed.

“All my preparations were done, the clothes were ready and I got the necessary vaccination. But God has another plan.”

AFP

Despite Suspending Hajj, Saudi Arabia Records First Coronavirus Case

SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab, SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19, the virus shown was isolated from a patient in the US.  AFP

 

Saudi Arabia on Monday confirmed its first case of coronavirus after one of its citizens who had returned from COVID-19 hotspot Iran tested positive.

The health ministry said the man, tested after entering the country through Bahrain, had been “isolated in a hospital”.

Saudi Arabia is the last Arab state in the Gulf to report a confirmed case of COVID-19. Elsewhere in the Arab world, Jordan and Tunisia also confirmed their first cases on Monday.

Last week, Riyadh barred citizens from its Gulf neighbours from visiting Mecca and Medina.

It also suspended visas for the year-round mini-pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest places located in the west of the Sunni kingdom.

The unprecedented moves have left thousands of Muslim pilgrims in limbo, raising uncertainty over the annual hajj to Mecca scheduled for end of July.

The holy sites, which draw millions of pilgrims every year, are a potential source of contagion but also a pillar of political legitimacy for Saudi rulers and a key revenue earner.

Other Gulf countries have announced a raft of measures to cut links with Iran after infections among pilgrims returning from Shiite shrines in the Islamic republic.

Iran on Monday raised its coronavirus death toll to 66 — the highest outside China — with 1,501 confirmed cases.

The World Health Organization on Monday sent its first planeload of assistance to Iran aboard an Emirati military aircraft.

AFP

Israel Police, Palestinians Clash At Flashpoint Jerusalem Holy Site

Photo: Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP

 

Israeli police and Palestinian worshippers clashed at a flash point Jerusalem holy site on Sunday as overlapping Jewish and Muslim holidays led to tensions there, an AFP journalist reported.

Police fired sound grenades as Palestinian protests intensified at the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The Palestinian Red Crescent reported injuries without specifying a number.

Sunday marked the start of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday and thousands of Palestinians prayed at the Al-Aqsa mosque.

It coincided with the Jewish Tisha B’av holiday, which typically sees an increase in Jewish visits to the holy site.

In a bid to ease tensions, police barred Jewish visits to the site on Sunday but Muslim worshippers still feared they would be allowed in and protested there. The clashes with police broke out afterward.

The compound, which includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, is one of the most sensitive sites in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is the third-holiest site in Islam and the most sacred for Jews, who revere it as the location of the two biblical-era temples.

It is located in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

Jews are allowed to visit but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions.