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Saudi Arabia welcomes 1 million people for biggest Hajj pilgrimage since pandemic


1 million vaccinated pilgrims under the age of 65 will participate in the hajj under strict sanitary conditions.

Mecca, Saudi Arabia:

White-robed worshipers from around the world have taken to the streets of Mecca as Islam’s holiest city prepares to host the biggest hajj pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic.

Banners welcoming worshipers, including the first international visitors since 2019, festooned squares and alleyways, as armed security forces patrolled the ancient city, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.

“It’s pure joy,” Sudanese pilgrim Abdel Qader Kheder told AFP in Mecca ahead of the event, which is due to start on Wednesday. “I almost can’t believe I’m here. I’m enjoying every moment.”

One million people, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed to take part in this year’s hajj – a key pillar of Islam that all able-bodied Muslims must perform at least once – after two years of drastically reduced numbers in due to the pandemic.

At least 650,000 foreign pilgrims have arrived in Saudi Arabia so far, authorities said on Sunday.

In 2019, an estimated 2.5 million people took part in the rituals, which include circling the Kaaba, the towering black cube of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, gathering at Mount Arafat and “stoning the devil”. in Mina.

The following year, foreigners were banned and worshipers were limited to just 10,000, rising to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents in 2021, to prevent the hajj from turning into a global superspreader.

One million vaccinated pilgrims under the age of 65 will take part in the hajj under strict sanitary conditions, with the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest place, being cleaned and disinfected 10 times a day.

The rituals have seen many disasters, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 people and a 1979 attack by hundreds of gunmen that left 153 dead, according to the official toll.

Unaccompanied women

The pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, is a powerful source of prestige for the conservative desert kingdom and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who returns from the diplomatic desert.

A few days after the hajj, Prince Mohammed will host US President Joe Biden who, with oil prices sent skyrocketing by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has reneged on promises to turn Saudi Arabia into a ‘pariah’ following to the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

The hajj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, is a source of income for the world’s biggest oil exporter, bringing in around $12 billion a year along with other religious visits.

It is also an opportunity to showcase a country that is undergoing rapid transformation, while still attracting regular complaints about human rights violations and the limits of individual freedoms.

Saudi Arabia – which under recent reforms allowed raves in Riyadh and mixed-gender beaches in Jeddah – now also allows women to attend hajj unaccompanied by a male relative, a requirement that was discontinued last year.

‘Serenity’

Masks are no longer required in most enclosed spaces in Saudi Arabia, but they will be at the Grand Mosque. Pilgrims from overseas will need to submit a negative PCR test result.

The Grand Mosque will be “washed 10 times a day…by more than 4,000 male and female workers”, with more than 130,000 liters (34,000 gallons) of disinfectant used each time, authorities said.

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 795,000 cases of coronavirus, including 9,000 fatalities, out of a population of around 34 million.

Besides Covid, another challenge is the scorching sun in one of the hottest and driest regions of the world, which is becoming even more extreme due to the effects of climate change.

Although summer is just beginning, temperatures have already topped 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in parts of Saudi Arabia.

But for Iraqi pilgrim Ahmed Abdul-Hassan al-Fatlawi, hot weather is the last thing on his mind when in Mecca.

“I’m 60, so it’s normal for me to be physically tired from the hot weather, but I’m in a state of serenity, and that’s all that matters to me,” he said. at AFP.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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