Muslim pilgrims observe pandemic rules as downsized Hajj peaks

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Mask-wearing Muslim pilgrims gathered near the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia on Thursday for the climax of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which was significantly curtailed this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A few thousand people are taking part, a fraction of the 2.5 million people who usually gather every year in the holy city of Mecca for Islam’s biggest gathering.

This is the first time Saudi Arabia decided to drastically limit number of pilgrims at the Hajj in modern history.

Clad in their traditional snow-white robes, the pilgrims wore protective face masks and observed distancing as they prayed inside al-Namirah Mosque in the area of Mount Arafat, around 20 km east of Mecca.

The granite hill is the site where the prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his last sermon, around 14 centuries ago.

A senior Saudi cleric urged the Muslims to show patience during the “tribulation” of the pandemic.

“Among the traits of the faithful is to be patient over painful fates,” Abdullah al-Manea, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest Islamic body, said in a televised sermon marking the peak of the Hajj.

“Life in this world is not without disasters. [But] tribulations, however large their scale may, will not continue forever. God’s mercy is larger,” he added in the sermon delivered in al-Namirah mosque.

Live broadcasting of the ritual sermon showed mask-wearing pilgrims listening and praying using personal rugs as part of strict health precautions.

Saudi authorities have also set up sterilized tents to accommodate pilgrims in Arafat, Saudi state television al-Ekhbariya reported.

The pilgrims are to stay at Arafat until dusk on Thursday, spending the day praying and reciting the holy Koran.

They ritually chant there for God to forgive their sins.

The pilgrims will next head to the nearby area of Muzdalifah, where they would normally collect pebbles to use for a symbolic stoning of the devil ritual in the desert valley of Mina, around 7 km north-east of Mecca.


However, this year, Saudi authorities have given them sealed bags containing sanitized pebbles.

On the following day, which marks the start of the Muslim Eid al-Adha, the pilgrims will converge on Mina for the stoning ritual.

The Hajj, one of Islam’s five pillars, is a mandatory duty for all Muslims once in a lifetime if they possess enough financial resources and are physically capable of undertaking the journey.

During the Hajj, male pilgrims usually wear seamless pieces of white cloth, while women wear loose garments without make-up or jewelry.

Their attire symbolizes abandoning worldly wealth and acknowledging equality.

The pilgrimage takes place annually from the eighth to the 12th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

This year’s Hajj, which began on Wednesday, has been overshadowed by pandemic fears.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has limited the numbers of Muslims attending the five-day Hajj, confining it to Muslims already living inside the monarchy in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Ahead of the Hajj, pilgrims spent one week quarantined at home and another four days in isolation in Mecca, as part of measures imposed by authorities, according to the Ministry of Media.

Face masks are mandatory, while buses transporting pilgrims between the different holy sites must be occupied at 50-per-cent capacity and pilgrims are only offered pre-packaged meals.

This is the first time Saudi Arabia decided to drastically limit number of pilgrims at the Hajj in modern history.



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