Faithful begin Haj pilgrimage under strict Covid-19 measures
This year only up to 10,000 people already residing in the Kingdom will participate in the ritual.
Muslim pilgrims on Wednesday begin the annual Haj, downsized this year as the Saudi hosts strive to prevent a coronavirus outbreak during the five-day pilgrimage.
The Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings.
But this year only up to 10,000 people already residing in the Kingdom will participate in the ritual, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world that attended last year.
"There are no security-related concerns in this pilgrimage, but (downsizing) is to protect pilgrims from the danger of the pandemic," said Khalid bin Qarar Al Harbi, Saudi Arabia's director of public security.
Pilgrims will be required to wear masks and observe social distancing during a series of religious rites that are completed over five days in the holy city of Makkah and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.
Those selected to take part in the Haj were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine as they began trickling into Makkah at the weekend.
Under supervision and follow-up of General President of the Two Holy Mosques Affairs, Kaaba's cover (Kiswa) will be replaced tomorrow evening, Wednesday.#InPeaceAndSecurity#SPAGOV pic.twitter.com/JPmdO5mWd9- SPAENG (@Spa_Eng) July 28, 2020
State media showed health workers sanitising their luggage, and some pilgrims reported being given electronic wristbands to allow authorities to monitor their whereabouts.
Workers, clutching brooms and disinfectant, were seen cleaning the area around the Kaaba, the structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque draped in gold-embroidered cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.
Haj authorities have cordoned off the Holy Kaaba this year, saying pilgrims will not be allowed to touch it, to limit the chances of infection.
They also reported setting up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims.
Saudi authorities said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the Kingdom would be permitted for the Haj. Some 70 per cent of the pilgrims are foreigners residing in the Kingdom, while the rest will be Saudi citizens, authorities said.
All worshippers were required to be tested for coronavirus before arriving in the holy city of Makkah and will also have to quarantine after the pilgrimage as the number of cases in the Kingdom nears 270,000.
They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilised pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the Ihram, a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims, according to a Haj ministry programme document.
"I did not expect, among millions of Muslims, to be blessed with approval," Emirati pilgrim Abdullah Al Kathiri said in a video released by the Saudi media ministry.
"It is an indescribable feeling... especially since it is my first pilgrimage."
The Haj ministry said non-Saudi residents of the Kingdom from around 160 countries competed in the online selection process but it did not say how many people applied.
Despite the pandemic, many pilgrims consider it safer to participate in this year's ritual without the usual colossal crowds cramming into tiny religious sites, which make it a logistical nightmare and a health hazard.
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