Pilgrims Pack Mount Arafat For Climax Of Biggest Covid-Era Hajj

An aerial view shows Muslim pilgrims gathering atop 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, on July 8, 2022. (Photo by AFP)
An aerial view shows Muslim pilgrims gathering atop 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, on July 8, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

 

Huge crowds of robed Muslim pilgrims prayed on Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat on Friday, the climax of the biggest hajj pilgrimage since the pandemic forced drastic cuts in numbers for two years.

Groups of worshippers, many holding umbrellas against the fierce sun, recited verses from the Koran on the rocky rise where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have given his final sermon.

Prayers on Mount Arafat are the highlight of the annual pilgrimage, capped this year at one million people including 850,000 from abroad.

Authorities said Friday that the number of pilgrims reached 899,353, including 779,919 from outside the kingdom.

READ ALSO: Overseas Hajj Pilgrims Rejoice After 2-Year COVID-19 Absence

Pilgrims, many in white robes, chanted “Oh God, here I am” as they reached Mount Arafat on foot or in buses from their nearby tents.

They will sleep under the stars in nearby Muzdalifah before performing the symbolic “stoning of the devil” ceremony on Saturday.

 

“I am so happy to be here… This is the biggest hajj in the coronavirus era, but it isn’t big enough yet,” Egyptian pilgrim Saad Farhat Khalil, 49, told AFP.

“If the Saudis allowed more, 10 million would have come,” he added.

Entry roads were packed with worshippers as helicopters buzzed overhead and volunteers handed out water and collected rubbish.

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

In 2019, as in previous years, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world took part, a figure that dropped to a few thousand in 2020 and 60,000 in 2021.

State media platforms said some 21 percent of this year’s pilgrims were from Arab countries and more than 53 percent were from Asia, while 412,895 women attended.

Covid fears

“In 2020 I thought I would never do hajj. It seemed like the end of time. But here we are today, God is great,” said Bassam Mohammed, another Egyptian pilgrim.

Minutes before sunset, huge crowds started walking towards their tents before taking buses or continuing their journey on foot.

The remaining pilgrims descended Mount Arafat as they recited their last prayers, some breaking into tears, while worshippers thronged nearby streets.

The large crowds have spurred fears Covid will spread, especially after many pilgrims were maskless at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, despite reports that face coverings would be mandatory.

A Covid resurgence in the region has seen some Gulf countries tighten restrictions.

All pilgrims were required to submit proof of vaccination and negative PCR tests.

Health ministry spokesman Dr Muhammad al-Abdulaali said Thursday evening that so far no Covid cases had been detected among the pilgrims, though it was unclear what testing was taking place.

Heat warnings

The pilgrimage can be physically draining even in ideal conditions, but worshippers this year faced an added challenge: scorching sun and temperatures well over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

On Friday, the temperature hit 44 degrees Celsius at Mount Arafat, state-run Al-Ekhbariya television reported.

Islam forbids men from wearing hats once the rites start, and many have been seen shielding themselves with umbrellas, prayer mats and even, in one case, a small bucket filled with water.

Women, meanwhile, are obliged to cover their heads with scarves.

“We can tolerate (the heat)… The more we tolerate, the more our pilgrimage is accepted,” Laila, a 64-year-old Iraqi pilgrim who gave only her first name, told AFP.

Saudi officials have touted their preparations for the extreme conditions, highlighting the hundreds of hospital beds allocated for heatstroke patients and the “large number of misting fans” provided.

Dozens of trucks distributed umbrellas, water bottles and small fans.

The National Centre for Meteorology, which has set up an office in Mina, sent mobile phone messages to pilgrims, urging them to avoid outdoor rituals at certain times of the day.

On Saturday, pilgrims will take part in the “stoning”, the last major ritual of the hajj which has previously led to deadly stampedes, as hundreds of thousands converge on a small space.

They will then return to the Grand Mosque in Mecca to perform a final “tawaf” or circling of the Kaaba, the cubic structure that is the focal point of Islam.

Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice that begins on Saturday, marks the end of hajj.

 

AFP

‘Unbelievable Feeling’: Overseas Hajj Pilgrims Rejoice After 2-Year COVID-19 Absence

Muslim pilgrims arrive outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on July 5, 2022.  (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

 

 

Of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims arriving in Mecca this week for the annual hajj pilgrimage, perhaps none had a more arduous journey than Adam Mohammed, a 53-year-old electrical engineer from the United Kingdom.

Mohammed, who is of Iraqi-Kurdish origin, decided last year to travel on foot to Saudi Arabia, a journey of more than 7,000 kilometres (4,350 miles) that took him through nine countries before he crossed over from Jordan into the northwestern Saudi town of Tabuk.

The trip was made all the more dramatic by the fact that when he started his trek 11 months ago, pushing a cart in front of him that contained his food and other supplies, he had no idea whether he would be able to access the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina.

It was only in April that Saudi Arabia, which barred overseas pilgrims in 2020 and 2021 as part of efforts to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic, announced that one million Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, would be able to participate this year.

Now safely in Mecca, some 15 kilograms (33 pounds) lighter than when he started, Mohammed has no regrets.

“I cried when I first arrived. It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he told AFP.

“My trip was exhausting. I stopped in many places for rest. But I was focused on one thing: I am 53 years old, so what if I spare 11 months on the road to reach the house of God? It’s doable.”

Mohammed said Saudi authorities granted him and his wife and two daughters, who have flown from the UK to the Gulf kingdom, a permit to participate in the hajj, which consists of a series of religious rites completed in Mecca and surrounding areas of western Saudi Arabia.

Most of the other foreigners performing the rite have been selected via a lottery system.

 

A Muslim pilgrim arrives outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on July 5, 2022.  (Photo by Delil souleiman / AFP)

 

– ‘It is my dream’ –
One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj must be undertaken by all able-bodied Muslims who have the means at least once in their lives.

But pandemic restrictions forced countless would-be pilgrims based outside Saudi Arabia to put their plans on hold.

Usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, about 2.5 million people participated in 2019, before the pandemic began.

The following year, foreigners were blocked and the total number of worshippers was capped at 10,000 to stop the hajj from turning into a global super-spreader.

That figure rose to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents in 2021.

Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige and a powerful source of legitimacy for Saudi rulers.

The ban on overseas pilgrims caused deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, who typically save for years to take part.

Though the number is much higher this year, there are still some restrictions: participants must be Muslims aged under 65 who are fully vaccinated and can submit a negative Covid-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.

The hajj officially begins Wednesday, and Mecca is already overrun with worshippers who, like Mohammed, are relieved to have finally reached their destination after long, stressful waits.

 

Muslim pilgrims are pictured on Jabal al-Noor or ‘Mountain of Light’ overlooking the holy city of Mecca, on July 5, 2022.  (Photo by Christina ASSI / AFP)

 

 

One million people, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed to participate in this year’s hajj — a key pillar of Islam that all able-bodied Muslims with the means are required to perform at least once — after two years of drastically curtailed numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Delil souleiman / AFP)

 

A 30-year-old Russian pilgrim who gave her name as Halima said she had been imagining her stay in Mecca for more than a decade.

The hajj costs at least $5,000 per person, and Halima said she shared her story with friends to drum up funds for both her and her father to come.

“Yesterday was the first time I saw the Kaaba,” she said, referring to the large black cubic structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque.

“It is my dream to be here, and now I am living it.”

Saudi Adopts Online Registration For Hajj To Combat Scams

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)

 

Saudi Arabia has required would-be hajj pilgrims from many Western countries to apply for visas via a government portal online, a move intended to crack down on “fake” travel agencies, officials told AFP on Monday. 

The new system was put in place as the kingdom prepares to welcome 850,000 Muslims from abroad for the annual hajj after two years during which pilgrims not already in Saudi Arabia were barred because of Covid pandemic restrictions.

It applies to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia, said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

READ ALSO: Saudi Eyes Tripling Of Foreign Tourists In 2022

Previously, pilgrims could register via travel agencies that organised hajj trips, a system that sometimes led to scams, with “fake agencies” making off with victims’ money, a second official said.

Saudi Arabia announced in April it would permit one million Muslims from inside and outside the country to participate in this year’s hajj.

State media announced the online portal a week ago, and the registration period ended Monday, the hajj ministry said on Twitter.

Those who registered will be included in a lottery for hajj visas.

One official who spoke to AFP acknowledged that some Muslims in the affected countries may have already tried to register via travel agencies, before the online portal was announced.

He said they would also be included in the lottery — which has not been scheduled — provided they had booked via an agency accredited by the hajj ministry.

One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj must be undertaken by all Muslims who have the means at least once in their lives.

It consists of a series of religious rites that are completed over five days in Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, and surrounding areas of western Saudi Arabia.

It is due to begin in early July, and the first batch of foreign pilgrims since before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived from Indonesia just over a week ago.

Mask rules

The pandemic has hugely disrupted Muslim pilgrimages, which are usually key revenue earners for Saudi Arabia, bringing in some $12 billion annually.

Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige and a powerful source of legitimacy for Saudi rulers.

In 2021, the coronavirus outbreak forced Saudi authorities to dramatically downsize the hajj for a second year, and just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom took part.

This year’s pilgrimage will be limited to vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65, the hajj ministry has said.

Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia are required to submit a negative Covid-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.

Saudi Arabia said Monday it would no longer require masks in most enclosed spaces, citing progress in fighting the pandemic.

However, masks will still be required in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, which surrounds the Kaaba, towards which Muslims pray, and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, where Prophet Mohammed is buried, according to a report published Monday by the official Saudi Press Agency, citing an interior ministry source.

Owners of establishments can also insist masks be worn if they wish, the report said, though mask-wearing has been sparsely enforced in recent months.

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 778,000 coronavirus cases, more than 9,100 of them fatal, in a population of some 34 million.

AFP

Saudi Launches E-Service For Umrah Pilgrims To Get Visas In 24 Hours

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. Fayez Nureldine/ AFP

 

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has launched an electronic service for Umrah pilgrims to get their visas issued within 24 hours.

Muslims from countries outside Saudi Arabia planning to attend Umrah can now individually apply for the visa through a designated web service.

Umrah is the non-mandatory lesser pilgrimage made by Muslims to Mecca, which may be performed at any time of the year.

Addressing a press conference on Thursday, Saudi’s Minister of Hajj and Umrah, Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, said the validity of Umrah visa has also been extended from one month to three months.

He said pilgrims who visit the kingdom to perform Umrah can also visit other Saudi cities without any restraints.

READ ALSO: Saudi Arabia To Allow One Million Hajj Pilgrims This Year

“Until recently, the usual way to apply for Umrah visas is through tourism agents to perform the rituals of Umrah,” he said.

“But the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has launched a new e-service that enables pilgrims to apply for the Umrah visas online which facilitates pilgrims to perform Umrah. The individuals can directly now obtain Umrah visas online as well as choose online the transportation, housing and many others that are suitable for them while arriving in Makkah.

“The Umrah visa will be issued in less than 24 hours online. The ministry has also extended the validity of the Umrah visa from one month to be valid for three months without restrictions. Umrah visa holders are also allowed to move around the Kingdom’s regions.

“The ministry will contribute to developing the Umrah experience for pilgrims. There are several companies who are now offering the service of issuing the Umrah visa online.”

 

According to the minister, one million people are expected to perform hajj in 2022, including 85 per cent of foreign pilgrims.

Saudi Arabia To Allow One Million Hajj Pilgrims This Year

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.  (Photo by – / AFP)

 

 

Saudi Arabia said Saturday it will permit one million Muslims from inside and outside the country to participate in this year’s hajj, a sharp uptick after pandemic restrictions forced two years of drastically pared-down pilgrimages.

The move, while falling short of reinstating normal hajj conditions, offered hopeful news for many Muslims outside the kingdom who have been barred from making the trip since 2019.

One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives. Usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, about 2.5 million people took part in 2019.

But after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Saudi authorities allowed only 1,000 pilgrims to participate.

The following year, they upped the total to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents chosen through a lottery.

This year the Saudi hajj ministry “has authorised one million pilgrims, both foreign and domestic, to perform the hajj,” it said in a pre-dawn statement Saturday.

– Age cap criticised –
The pilgrimage, which will take place in July, will be limited to vaccinated Muslims under age 65, the statement said.

Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia, who must apply for hajj visas, will this year also be required to submit a negative Covid-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.

The government wants to promote pilgrims’ safety “while ensuring that the maximum number of Muslims worldwide can perform the hajj”, the statement said.

The hajj consists of a series of religious rites that are completed over five days in Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, and surrounding areas of western Saudi Arabia.

Authorities took a number of special measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus last year, including dividing pilgrims into groups of 20 and handing out disinfectants, masks and sterilised pebbles for the “stoning of Satan” ritual.

But the relatively small crowds were distressing to Muslims abroad.

“We have been in great sadness and pain in the past two years because of the small number of pilgrims. The scene was horrible,” 36-year-old Cairo resident Mohamed Tamer said Saturday.

“I am very happy that the hajj will return to normality to some extent,” he added, though he also expressed worry about rising costs including for flights and hotels.

Reactions to Saturday’s announcement were generally positive on social media, though some Twitter users criticised the age cap.

“Such great news, but imposing age restrictions is heartbreaking for many aged hajj aspirants,” one user wrote in response to the hajj ministry’s announcement.

Others voiced concern about what would happen to pilgrims who financed trips to Mecca — only to have their plans ruined by a positive Covid-19 test.

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

Before the pandemic, Muslim pilgrimages were key revenue earners for the kingdom, bringing in some $12 billion annually.

The kingdom of approximately 34 million people has so far recorded more than 751,000 coronavirus cases, including 9,055 deaths, according to health ministry data.

In early March it announced the lifting of most Covid restrictions including social distancing in public spaces and quarantine for vaccinated arrivals, moves that were expected to facilitate an increase in Muslim pilgrims.

The decision included suspending “social distancing measures in all open and closed places” including mosques, while masks are now only required in closed spaces.

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.

READ ALSO: Eid-el-Kabir: Giant Sheep Sells For $3,600 In Senegal

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.

READ ALSO: South Africa Expels Malawi Diplomats Over Alcohol Scandal

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.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: Millions Mark Easter As Pope Urges Jabs For Poor

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