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  06 Jul 2022, 10:11
Update : 06 Jul 2022, 19:12

Maskless pilgrims launch largest hajj of Covid era

 
MECCA, Saudi Arabia, July 6, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - The biggest hajj pilgrimage
since the Covid pandemic began kicked off Wednesday, with hundreds of
thousands of mostly maskless worshippers expected to circle Islam's holiest
site in Saudi Arabia's Mecca.

One million fully vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, are
allowed at this year's hajj, a major break from two years of drastically
curtailed numbers due to the pandemic.

At Mecca's Grand Mosque, pilgrims performed the "tawaf", the circumambulation
of the Kaaba, the large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black
cloth that Muslims around the world turn towards to pray.

Authorities said last month that masks would be required at the site, but
that has been largely ignored so far this week.

Many pilgrims held umbrellas to block the hot sun as the temperature climbed
to 42 degrees Celsius (108 Fahrenheit).

The Saudi health ministry has prepared 23 hospitals and 147 health centres in
Mecca and Medina, the second-holiest city in Islam, to accommodate pilgrims,
state media reported this week.

That includes allocating more than 1,000 beds for patients requiring
intensive care and more than 200 specifically for heatstroke patients, while
dispatching more than 25,000 health workers to respond to cases as they
arise.

The hajj poses a considerable security challenge and has seen several
disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300
people.

No incidents had been reported as of Wednesday afternoon.

"It's all going well so far. I have moved around a lot and saw rules are
being respected," said Faten Abdel Moneim, a 65-year-old Egyptian mother of
four.

"I hope it stays this way."

- Five days of rituals -

This year's hajj is larger than the pared-down versions staged in 2020 and
2021 but still smaller than in normal times.

In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world participated in the
annual event -- a key pillar of Islam that able-bodied Muslims must undertake
at least once in their lives.

But after that, the coronavirus outbreak forced a dramatic downsizing. Just
60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom took part in
2021, up from a few thousand in 2020.

The pilgrimage consists of a series of religious rites which are completed
over five days in Islam's holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi
Arabia.

On Thursday, the pilgrims will move to Mina, around five kilometres (three
miles) away from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat,
where it is believed the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon.

Four hospitals and 26 health centres are ready to treat pilgrims in Mina,
state media said.

This year's hajj is restricted to vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65
chosen from millions of applicants through an online lottery system.

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

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than
795,000 coronavirus cases, more than 9,000 of them fatal.

- 'Too hot' -

Those attempting to perform the hajj without a permit face fines of 10,000
Saudi riyals (around $2,600).

Policemen in the mountainous city have set up checkpoints and conducted foot
patrols.

Some pilgrims have donned clothing featuring the names and flags of their
countries. "Hajj 2020 -- Chad" was written on the back of the white robes of
one group.

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

Costing at least $5,000 per person, the hajj is also a money-spinner for the
world's biggest oil exporter, which is trying to diversify its economy.

In normal years, the pilgrimage brings in billions of dollars.

These days it represents a chance to showcase the kingdom's ongoing social
transformation, despite persistent complaints about human rights abuses and
limits on personal freedoms.

Saudi Arabia now allows women to attend the hajj unaccompanied by male
relatives, a requirement that was dropped last year.

"Being here is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I can't wait for
the rest," said 42-year-old Egyptian pilgrim Naima Mohsen, who came to the
Grand Mosque by herself this week.

"My only problem is the weather. It's just too hot."

 

 

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