Saudi Arabia to lift ban on Mecca pilgrimage amid virus
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday said Muslims will be allowed to perform the smaller, year-round pilgrimage starting on 4 October as the kingdom gradually begins lifting restrictions that had been in place on Islam's holiest site for the past seven months due to the coronavirus.
State media reported the government plans to allow up to 6,000 visitors a day at the sprawling Grand Mosque in Mecca, which will be open to Saudi citizens and residents only during this first phase.
Before visitors can enter the mosque to pray or perform the "umrah" pilgrimage, they will have to apply and reserve a specific time and date through an online application that is launching on 27 September to avoid crowding and maintain social-distancing guidelines. Visitors can also select via the app their means of transportation and meeting points.
The hajj in a time of pandemic
In a normal year, millions of Muslims flock to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage. But with COVID-19 still a global threat, only a few thousand have been allowed to make the journey this year, and those that were allowed to travel, have to abide by a set of strict rules.
Ahead of this year's hajj, the most important pilgrimage for Muslims, crews at the Grand Mosque were busy with more than just the usual cleaning and maintenance work. To keep people at a distance from each other and avoid spreading the virus, strips of tape have been stuck to the ground around the Kaaba, Islam's most sacred site, showing people where to walk
This year, pilgrims at the Grand Mosque are required to keep the prescribed distance from each other, circling the sanctuary counter clockwise seven times while staying at least 1.5 metres from the next pilgrim. They are also strictly forbidden to touch the Kaaba
Wearing face masks, these security officers have set an example for the pilgrims chosen to participate in the 2020 hajj. The pilgrims chosen are all either Saudi nationals or foreigners living in Saudi Arabia; arrivals by plane weren't allowed this year. Saudi Arabia has been severely affected by the pandemic, with more than 270,000 infections reported as of late July and around 3,000 to 4,000 new cases every day
Faithful Muslims are obliged to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lives, as long as they are healthy and of age and "if they find a possibility to do so", according to the Quran (surah 3, verse 97). The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. Pictured here: Muslim pilgrims wear protective masks on their way to the Meeqaat
The ritual stoning of Satan at Mina, near Mecca, is part of the hajj pilgrimage. Here too, people must keep their distance. The pilgrims also receive disinfected stones for the ritual, a prayer rug and hand sanitiser
Since 1999, between 1 and 3 million Muslims have thronged to Mecca every year for the hajj. This year, however, crowds were more manageable — only 10,000 people were allowed to attend. Participants were chosen in an online process. Their temperature was checked upon arrival in Mecca, and they were quarantined for two weeks
In 2018, more than 2 million Muslims made the journey to Mecca, with many staying in this tent city in Mina. In addition to its religious significance, the hajj is also an economic event: past pilgrimages have netted Saudi Arabia more than €10 billion ($11.8 billion) annually. In Mecca and the surrounding area, hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on the event
The second phase launches on 18 October, allowing a maximum of 15,000 pilgrims and 40,000 in for prayer from among residents and citizens based on allocated times via the app.
The Grand Mosque houses the cube-shaped Kaaba that observant Muslims pray toward five times a day. Muslim travellers from outside Saudi Arabia could be allowed to perform the "umrah" pilgrimage as early as 1 November, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. Saudi Arabia recently began easing some restrictions on international flights for the first time since March.
The ministry said it will continuously evaluate these guidelines and developments related to the pandemic.
The kingdom held a dramatically downsized, symbolic hajj pilgrimage in July due to concerns that it could easily have become a global super-spreader event for the virus. Pilgrims were selected after applying through an online portal and all were residents or citizens of Saudi Arabia. Rather than the more than 2 million pilgrims the kingdom hosts for the annual event, as little as 1,000 took part after being tested for the virus and quarantined.
Despite taking early and sweeping measures to contain the virus, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 330,000 cases, including more than 4,500 deaths. (AP)