Hajj pilgrims flocked from the holy city of Mecca and into the Mina Valley on Sunday, initiating the rituals of the great pilgrimage that Saudi Arabia is holding in a reduced form for a second year.
Only 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom are allowed to participate, far from the huge crowds that descend to Mecca in normal times where the ritual attracted up to 2.5 million pilgrims.
Since Saturday, groups of pilgrims have performed the “tawaf” at the Great Mosque of Mecca, encircling the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in black cloth embroidered with gold to which Muslims around the world pray.
After that, they headed to Mina, where they will spend the night. Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, about five kilometers (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, and turns into a large camp for pilgrims every year.
Pilgrims were brought there on Sunday in buses that were only half full to comply with social distancing rules, and authorities provided 3,000 electric cars to transport the elderly and people with reduced mobility.
“We have applied social distancing inside the camps where there are four pilgrims in each room. We put barriers between each bed to apply social distancing, “tour operator Hadi Fouad told AFP.
“For the common areas of the camp, like the prayer area and the cafeteria, we have assigned a security company whose guards are spread throughout the camp to make sure there is no overcrowding.”
At the climax of Hajj, worshipers will climb Mount Arafat on Monday.
Also known as the “Mount of Mercy,” this is the site where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon. The faithful will undertake hours of prayers and Koranic recitals there.
After going down the next day, they will pick up stones and perform the symbolic “stoning of the devil”.
Not having been able to perform #Hajj last year, this # Hajj2021 pilgrim thanks God for allowing him to be part of the limited number of pilgrims making the annual Islamic pilgrimage this year. #FacesOfHajj #InPeaceAndSecurity pic.twitter.com/rnPnOrIfdg
– الحج 1442 (@HajjMedia) July 18, 2021
The Hajj, usually one of the largest annual religious gatherings in the world, is one of the five pillars of Islam and should be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lifetime.
This year’s pilgrimage is larger than the simplified version held in 2020, but is considerably smaller than normal, creating resentment among Muslims abroad who are again banned.
Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants via an online vetting system, with the event being restricted to fully vaccinated adults aged 18 to 65 without chronic illness.
“I thank God that we were allowed to come, although we did not expect it due to the small number of pilgrims,” said Abdulaziz bin Mahmoud, an 18-year-old Saudi.
Saddaf Ghafour, a 40-year-old Pakistani woman traveling with her friend, was among the women making the pilgrimage without a male “guardian”, which was a requirement until recently.
“It is a privilege to perform Hajj among a very limited number of pilgrims,” she said.
Since the start of the pandemic, the kingdom has reported at least 462,000 cases of the virus with 7,500 deaths.
It has administered some 15.4 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the World Health Organization. The kingdom is home to over 30 million people.
The Hajj, which usually brings together large crowds at crowded religious sites, is potentially a super-spreading event of the virus.
But the Hajj ministry said it was working on the “highest levels of health precautions” in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
Groups of pilgrims arrived in Mina on Tarwiyah Day, the eighth day of the Islamic month of Dhu Al-Hijjah and the start of their Hajj journey.
– (@HaramainInfo) July 18, 2021
The pilgrims are divided into groups of only 20 “to limit any exposure to these 20 people, thus limiting the spread of infection,” said the ministry’s undersecretary, Mohammad al-Bijawi.
In addition to strict social distancing measures, authorities have introduced a “Hajj smart card” to allow contactless access to camps, hotels and buses to transport pilgrims around religious sites.
The Hajj took place last year on the smallest scale in modern history.
Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said as many as 10,000 eventually participated.
“Public health teams monitor the health of pilgrims 24 hours a day when they arrive in Mecca,” said Sari Asiri, director of the Hajj and Umrah department at the health ministry, of the precautions taken this year. .
Anyone found infected would be taken to isolation facilities, he added.