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.

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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

Bethlehem Welcomes Pilgrims For Christmas Celebrations

Tourists and pilgrims visit the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019.  HAZEM BADER / AFP

 

Pilgrims from around the world gathered Tuesday in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, ushering in Christmas celebrations across the globe.

Thousands of Palestinians and foreigners converged on the “little town” in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, arrived from the holy city at the head of a procession.

Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem but cut off from it by Israel’s separation barrier.

After crossing through the wall, Pizzaballa said it was a difficult time but there was a reason for “hope”.

“We see in this period the weakness of politics, enormous economic problems, unemployment, problems in families,” he said.

“On the other side, when I visit families, parishes, communities, I see a lot of commitment… for the future.

“Christmas is for us to celebrate the hope.”

In the square outside the church, a few thousand people watched in the winter sun as Palestinian scouts paraded in front of a 15-metre Christmas tree.

“The church is beautiful and it puts what we know in the Bible (in) place,” said Laneda, an American tourist visiting the site.

“Everything is just very meaningful.”

As evening fell, crowds thinned as the church closed to tourists ahead of midnight mass, which Pizzaballa was to lead, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend.

Pope Francis was set to address the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics late Tuesday evening.

‘Bumpy year’

The first church was built on the site of Jesus’s birth in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.

This year celebrations were bolstered by the return of a wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus.

Sent as a gift to Pope Theodore I in 640, the piece had been in Europe for more than 1,300 years before being returned last month, Francesco Patton, chief custodian for the Holy Land, said.

“We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago,” Patton told AFP at the time.

In the square by the church, Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maayah told AFP it had been a good year, with 3.5 million tourists visiting the city.

But fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years, as Israel had granted permits to just around 300 of some 900 people who applied, said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land.

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits.

Around the world, people were getting ready to ring in the Christmas festivities.

In her traditional Christmas Day message, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was to describe 2019 as “quite bumpy” after a year of crises in the royal family.

In France, travellers were meanwhile facing more woe in the bitter nearly-three week strike by train drivers fighting government pension reform plans.

The walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of French ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day.

A frantic scramble for gift promotions left a dozen people injured in an Australian mall.

But in Hong Kong chaos broke out in an upscale mall after pro-democracy protesters planned a series of Christmas Ever demonstrations.

And in the central Philippines, where Christmas is widely celebrated among the country’s Catholics, thousands of people were warned to leave their homes as a severe tropical storm approached.

AFP

Pilgrims Gather In Bethlehem For Christmas Celebration

Christian pilgrims visit the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019. Pilgrims from around the world gathered today in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.
HAZEM BADER / AFP

 

Pilgrims from around the world gathered Tuesday in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.

Palestinians and foreigners began converging on the  “little town” in the Israeli-occupied West Bank from early morning, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity.

Tourists queued to visit the grotto inside the church, believed to be the exact site where Jesus was born, with Ola, a Nigerian visitor, saying it was a “special day.”

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Outside in the winter sun, hundreds watched as Palestinian scouts paraded to the sound of drums.

“I feel really emotional to be here today, it’s wonderful,” said Germana, an Italian travelling with her husband and two children.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, an apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, was due to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Tuesday morning.

He will lead midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend.

Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem but cut off from the holy city by Israel’s separation barrier.

The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.

This year celebrations were bolstered by the return of a wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus.

Sent as a gift to Pope Theodore I in 640, the piece had been in Europe for more than 1,300 years before being returned last month, Francesco Patton, chief custodian for the Holy Land, said.

“We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago,” Patton told AFP at the time.

‘Tough Christmas In Gaza’

In the square by the church, Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maaya told AFP it had been a good year, with 3.5 million tourists visiting the city.

But fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years, as Israel granted permits to just around 200 of some 900 people who applied, said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land.

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits.

Abunassar said Christmas remained a time for hope.

“The Holy Land is not only the site of the birth and crucifixion (of Jesus), it is also the place of resurrection,” he told AFP.

“Despite all challenges, difficulties, pain and problems we are facing, we keep the hope in God and people.”

‘Bumpy Year’

Around the world, people were getting ready to ring in the Christmas festivities.

In her traditional Christmas Day message, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was to describe 2019 as “quite bumpy” after a year of crises in the royal family.

In France, travellers were meanwhile in for more woe in the bitter nearly-three week strike by train drivers fighting government pension reform plans.

The walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of French ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day.

A frantic scramble for gift promotions left a dozen people injured in an Australian mall.

And in the central Philippines, where Christmas is widely celebrated among the country’s Catholics, thousands of people were warned to leave their homes as a severe tropical storm approached.

AFP

16 Dead In Stampede At Iraqi Shiite Shrine – Ministry

Iraqi Shiites in costumes re-enact events of Ashura in the central city of Najaf during the mourning procession on the tenth day of Muharram which marks the day of Ashura, on September 10, 2019. The day of Ashura is commemorated by Shiite Muslims worldwide and marks the climax of mourning rituals in the Islamic month of Muharram for the 7th century killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed, in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.

 

At least 16 pilgrims died on Tuesday in a stampede at a major shrine in the Iraqi city of Karbala as they were marking the holy day of Ashura, the health ministry said.

Another 75 people were injured at the shrine around 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, said spokesman Saif al-Badr, stressing that the toll was not final.

Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims swarm Karbala every year to commemorate the death of Hussein, Prophet Mohammad’s grandson.

Hajj: Pilgrims Protest Against Alleged Neglect

Pilgrims Protest Against Alleged Neglect

 

 

Scores of hajj pilgrims have protested against their alleged abandonment by relevant authorities.

They staged the protest on Monday at the Hajj Camp of the Ilorin International Airport in the Kwara State capital.

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The pilgrims who are from Ondo and Ekiti states accused an airline of not having a definite time to airlift them to Saudi Arabia.

They claimed that they have been sleeping in the open and cheated by food sellers in the camp through exorbitant fees.

The protesters said two pilgrims fainted and called on the Federal Government to come to their aid.

See photos below:

Muslim Pilgrims Symbolically Stone The Devil In Day Two Of Haj Rite

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims arrived at the “stoning of the devil” ritual on Saturday (September 2) for the second day of the annual haj pilgrimage.

Pilgrims threw stones at three walls at Jamarat in Mina, in one of the main rituals of the haj.

Authorities redesigned the Jamarat area after two stampedes, one in 2004 and one in 2006, killed hundreds of pilgrims, and the frequency of such disasters has been greatly reduced as the government spent billions of dollars upgrading and expanding haj infrastructure and crowd control technology.

Saudi Arabia has said that over 2 million pilgrims, most of them from outside Saudi Arabia, have arrived for the annual pilgrimage, a religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey.

Pilgrims Urged To Seek Spiritual Solution To Nigeria’s Challenges

Niger-governor belloThe Governor of Niger State, Mr Abubakar Bello, has urged intending pilgrims to the Holy Land of Jerusalem to ask God for spiritual theory that will help the country out of its present challenges.

Governor Bello while addressing the 218 pilgrims on Tuesday at the State Pilgrims Board asked them to intercede for Niger State and the country at large.

Mr Bello, who was represented by the Commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism, Mr Jonathan Vatsa, told the pilgrims before their departure that Nigeria was economically, politically and socially sick.

“You are not going there for site-seeing. All the theories to revamp the economy have failed, but the spiritual theory will not fail us. That is why you are going there to pray for God’s intervention especially this time that the country is going through a lot of challenges.

“The land we are standing is economically, politically and socially sick.

“Go to the holy land and intercede for Nigeria. Be good Ambassadors and pray for stability in the nation’s economy and pray against insecurity,” he said.

Also, the Chairman of the Niger State Pilgrims Board Commission, Justice Ndatsu Ndagi, asked intending pilgrims to remain good ambassadors and shun any idea of absconding.

“You are going there to pray for the State and the country. Always do the right thing so that whatever money spent will not go in vein.

“To abscond is not the charter establishing pilgrim. Follow and obey the laws of the land,” he said.

Arab News: No Saudi Ban Over Ebola For Nigerians Going On Hajj

Ebola_quarantineSaudi Arabia, which has barred pilgrims from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea from the Hajj due to Ebola concerns, will allow Nigerians to attend, an official was reported on Monday as saying, suggesting the smaller outbreak there was less worrying.

The Arab News daily quoted the deputy health minister for planning and development, Mohammed Al-Khasheem, as saying there was no need to worry about Nigerians coming on pilgrimage.

“We have not stopped issuing Hajj visas to Nigerians and we know that about 70,000 pilgrims come from the African country every year,” he was quoted as saying.

“The WHO knows the situation in Mina and Arafat during the Hajj season and there is no need to worry about a few Ebola cases that have occurred in Nigeria,” he said, referring to holy Hajj sites in Saudi Arabia.

“We have taken precautionary measures to prevent an Ebola outbreak in the Kingdom during the haj season,” Al-Khasheem said. “We have made early preparations for the annual pilgrimage,” he said. Al-Khasheem further said the ministry’s department for preventive medicine is in constant contact with the WHO on the latest developments on Ebola and other infectious diseases.

Saudi Arabia said in April it would not issue visas for the 2014 Hajj to pilgrims from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea due to the Ebola outbreak in those countries.

Millions travel to Mecca each year for the haj pilgrimage that all Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetime, if they are able. This year’s Hajj will take place in October.

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been worst hit by an outbreak of the disease in West Africa, with a combined death toll in those three countries since March of 2,097, as at September 5, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

Hajj 2014: Kaduna Registers 5,672 Intending Pilgrims

hajj2The Acting Executive Secretary of Kaduna State Pilgrims Muslim Welfare Board, Kabiru Kasimu, announced on Thursday that the board has registered a total of 5,672 intending pilgrims that would perform the 2014 Hajj in Saudi Arabia.
 
He also declared that so far, the board has appointed all its Hajj officials and designated airlines for a smooth hajj operation in the state.

Addressing a news conference in his office, Kasimu said that the airlifting of pilgrims from the state would commence in September, adding that seasoned professionals have been sent to the 23 Local Government Areas of the state to sensitize intending pilgrims on the rules and guidelines the exercise.

On the commencement of air lift of intending pilgrims from the state, the overseer said that they were still waiting for the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to fix the date. According to him, “Three airlines have been approved for the state; they are Kabo Air, Mars Air and Egypt airline”.

On the major challenge faced by the Board, he said that inadequate allocation of Hajj seats for the state was their major concern.


Jonathan Rededicates Self To Country’s Development During Pilgrimage

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan along with his entourage has kicked off his holy pilgrimage to Israel with a tour of some holy sites in Jerusalem.

The tour was used as a rededication by the President to the development of the country.

The President also took time to tour the holy sites within the walls of old Jerusalem.

The walk down the way of the cross in particular was used by the president to make supplications on behalf of the country.

On the first day, the tour started with a visit to the garden of Gethsemani, the Upper Room in Mount Zion and the Church of St. Peters, where Peter was said to have denied Jesus.

Supplications were made in Chapels to mark every holy site by Christian Ministers, as they prayed for the President, as well as the unity and continued existence of the country back home.

The second day of President Jonathan’s tour started with the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem and the President was received by the Rabbi of the Wall, who led the pilgrims to offer supplications.

President Jonathan was led afterwards to the tunnels underneath the Wall to the Station of the Cross, which marked Jesus’ travails from the seat of Pontus Pilate to the Calvary.

The journey ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with President Jonathan offering prayers at every station along the way.

The experience no doubt awakens the sense of sacrifice in officials in the President’s entourage and perhaps an obligation to leave their country better for the next generation.

It will be recalled that the President left Nigeria for the year’s holy pilgrimage on Thursday 23rd October.

According to a statement by the Special Adviser to the President (Media & Publicity), Reuben Abati, the President will also be meeting with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.

There will also be talks between President Jonathan’s delegation and the Israeli government officials, with a focus on the enhancement of bilateral relations between Nigeria and Israel in areas of trade, economic development, infrastructure, transportation, agriculture, communications, culture, education and tourism.

According to the statement, President Jonathan will also be meeting with the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas.

Those among the entourage of the President on the holy pilgrimage are Senator Emmanuel Paulker, the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Akinwunmi  Adesina, the Minister of Water Resources, Mrs Sarah Ochekpe, the Minister of Works, Arc. Mike Onolememen, the Minister of State (Foreign Affairs), Prof Viola Onwuliri, and the National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki.

The President, who is expected to be back in the country next week, may meet and interact with some other Nigerians who are already in Israel for the holy pilgrimage.

Thanks For Not Disappearing In Israel, Orji Tells Pilgrims

The Abia state governor, Theodore Orji on Wednesday expressed his gratitude to the pilgrims who visited Israel and returned to the state without attempting to run off.

During his speech at a thanksgiving service in honour of those who participated in the 2013 pilgrim to Israel at the Micheal Okpara auditorium, Umuahia, the governor said that the return of all the pilgrims is a good testimony for the state.

Mr Orji disclosed that the state spent about N450,000 including $500 Basic Travel Allowance (BTA) for each person embarking on pilgrimage and hinted that the administration would continue to sponsor those going on pilgrimage.

“No amount of money is big for Abia people to keep in touch with God.” Mr Orji said.

He urged the citizens of the state to continue praying for those in leadership and for peace.

Eid-el-Kabir: I’m committed to restoring peace in Nigeria – Jonathan

President Goodluck Jonathan on Thursday said that his administration will “continue to give dedicated, committed, focused and purposeful leadership towards overcoming old and emerging challenges before the nation.”

In a Message to mark this year’s Sallah celebration, the president urged Nigerians to “seize the opportunity of the Sallah season and the public holidays to reflect on how we can bring the ideals and virtues of our religious beliefs to bear on the positive resolution of the many challenges facing us as a nation.

“Nigerians remain a people of great faith with the vast majority of our people professing belief in God either as Muslims or Christians.

“There can be no doubt that we will make faster progress towards the attainment of developmental objectives as a nation if we all resolve to do more to live up to the highest ideals of our religious beliefs including the fear of God, willingness to make personal sacrifices for the collective good, selfless service, respect for laws and constituted authorities, honesty, justice, equity, fairness, dutifulness, peace and harmonious co-existence with others,” he said.

Speaking on the challenge faced by some Muslim Pilgrims in the Holy land, Mr Jonathan said though “the problem was eventually resolved with the positive intervention of the Federal Government, I have ordered a thorough post mortem of the incident with a view to ensuring that our Hajj airlift operations are never disrupted by such problems in future and that no Nigerian pilgrim is ever subjected to such traumatic experience in the Holy Land again”.

He expressed the commitment of his administration to give dedicated, committed, focused and purposeful leadership towards overcoming old and emerging challenges before the nation.

He enjoined all Muslims to remember the plight of the many thousands of Nigerians who have been displaced by the floods which recently devastated many communities across the nation and resolve to contribute whatever we can to ameliorate their suffering.

“In the true spirit of our major religions which enjoin us to be generous to the needy, I urge all Nigerians who can do so, to donate magnificently to the national relief fund for affected persons and communities” he said.

He promised that his administration will monitor the disbursement and utilization of the funds released by the Federal Government and those raised by the National Committee very closely to ensure that they are judiciously and expeditiously expended for the benefit of the flood victims.