Under COVID-19 restrictions and uncertain future, the Hajj in Mecca begins


On Sunday, tens of thousands of vaccinated Muslim pilgrims hovered in the holiest part of Islam in Mecca, but due to the impact of the coronavirus on Hajj for the second year in a row, they still kept their physical distance and wore masks.

The Hajj, which once attracted about 2.5 million Muslims from all walks of life from all over the world, is now almost unrecognizable.

The shrinking of this year and the ongoing Hajj due to the COVID-19 outbreak has not only affected the ability of people outside Saudi Arabia to fulfill Islamic obligations, but also the billions of dollars that Saudi Arabia receives from its guardians of holy places each year.

The Islamic pilgrimage lasts about five days, but Muslims traditionally arrive in Mecca a few weeks earlier. The pilgrimage ends with the Eid al-Adha, marked by the distribution of meat to the poor all over the world.

Due to continued concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, only 60,000 vaccinated Saudi citizens or residents of Saudi Arabia are allowed to perform the Hajj this year.This is a far greater number Last year was mainly a symbolic hajj Less than 1,000 people from within the kingdom participated.

With no clear or agreed vaccine passport standards, extremely uneven vaccination rates, and new variants of the virus threatening the progress already made in some countries, it is not clear when Saudi Arabia will once again receive its planned millions of Muslim pilgrims. Received in the next few years.

The Saudi rulers of the kingdom bet its legitimacy to a large extent on their supervision of pilgrimage sites, which provides them with a unique and powerful platform among Muslims around the world. Despite the changes caused by the pandemic, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is still doing its utmost to ensure uninterrupted Hajj every year.

Safety measures in place

Robots have been deployed to spray disinfectants around the busiest sidewalks of the cubic Kaaba. The pilgrimage of most people begins and ends here.

Saudi Arabia is also testing smart bracelets in cooperation with government artificial intelligence agencies this year. The touch screen bracelet is similar to the Apple Watch and includes information about Hajj, pilgrims’ oxygen levels and vaccine data, and has an emergency function to call for help.

International media that already existed in the kingdom were allowed to report on the Hajj from Mecca this year, but other media were not allowed to fly in as they did before the pandemic.

The cleaners disinfect the huge white marble space of the Grand Mosque that houses the Kaaba several times a day.

“We are disinfecting the floor and using a disinfectant, cleaning two or three times at the same time [each] Change shifts,” said Olis Gul, a cleaner who has worked in Mecca for 20 years.

On Sunday, a pilgrim prayed at his tent camp in Mina near the Muslim holy city of Mecca. (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)

Hajj is one of the most important requirements of Islam, and it must be performed once in a lifetime. It follows the path taken by the Prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago, and is believed to eventually trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or the biblical names of Abraham and Ishmael.

Hajj is seen as an opportunity to erase the sins of the past and bring greater unity among Muslims. The shared experience of more than 2 million people from all over the world-Shia, Sunni and other Muslim sects-praying together, eating together and repenting together has long made Hajj both a challenging and transformative experience. Part.

Reduced public experience

There are doubts about whether the Hajj can attract such a large number of believers again. Male pilgrims wear terry cloth clothing to form a white ocean, symbolizing the equality of human beings before God, while women give up makeup and perfume to focus on the heart.

Just like last year, the pilgrims will drink water from the sacred osmosis spring using packaged plastic bottles. Pilgrims must also bring their own prayer blankets and must adhere to a strict timetable through a mobile app that informs them when they can enter certain areas to avoid congestion.

“I hope this is a successful Hajj season,” said Aly Aboulnaga, an Egyptian pilgrim and lecturer at the University of Saudi Arabia. “We pray that God will accept everyone’s hajj, open the area to more pilgrims, and return to a better condition than before.”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the kingdom was working to greatly expand Mecca’s capacity to receive pilgrims through the expansion of the US$60 billion Grand Mosque. On the south side of the mosque stands the 600-meter-high Bell Tower skyscraper, which is part of a seven towers built to accommodate high-end paying pilgrims.

This kingdom of more than 30 million people has reported more than 500,000 cases of COVID-19, with more than 8,000 deaths. According to the World Health Organization, it has received nearly 20 million doses of vaccine.



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