Muslims in Saudi Arabia began the annual five-day Hajj pilgrimage, on Wednesday, which this year is taking place on a much smaller scale due to the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is a requirement on able-bodied Muslims, who must perform it at least once in their lifetime. Over 2 million pilgrims usually travel to the western Saudi city of Mecca from around the world to take part, with huge numbers descending on the pilgrimage sites. However, a total of 10,000 people, who are already residing in Saudi Arabia, have been allowed to attend this year.
“There are no security-related concerns during this pilgrimage, but (downsizing) is to protect pilgrims from the dangers of the pandemic,” Khalid bin Qarar Al-Harbi, Saudi Arabia’s Director of Public Security, said.
To limit the risk of contagion, pilgrims have been asked to wear masks at all times and observe social distancing during the series of rites carried out during the pilgrimage.
State television showed pilgrims walking into Mecca’s Grand Mosque, on Wednesday, divided into groups to begin the ritual with a circumambulation around the Kaaba. This is a cube-shaped structure draped in black cloth finished in gold, and towards which Muslims around the world pray.
A Hajj programme document said pilgrims were provided with a kit that included sterilised pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug, and the ihram worn by pilgrims.
This year marks the first time in nearly a century of Saudi rule over Mecca that people from outside the country will not be taking part. Around 70% of this year’s Hajj pilgrims are foreigners living in Saudi Arabia who were chosen in an online selection process, while the rest are Saudi citizens, authorities said.