On Sunday, Hajj pilgrims left the holy city of Mecca and entered the Mine Valley, launching the rituals of the great pilgrimage that Saudi Arabia celebrates for the second year in a row.
Only the participation of 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom is allowed, far from the immense crowds that descend to Mecca in normal times when the ritual brought together up to 2.5 million pilgrims.
Since Saturday, groups of pilgrims have been performing the “tawaf” at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, circling the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped with a gold-embroidered black cloth to which Muslims around the world pray.
After that, they have been heading to Mina, where they will spend the night. Mina is located in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, about five kilometers (three miles) from the Great Mosque, and is transformed each year into a vast camp for pilgrims.
Pilgrims were transported there on Sunday in buses that were only half-filled to meet social distance rules, and authorities provided 3,000 electric cars to transport the elderly and people with reduced mobility.
“We have applied social distancing within the camps where there are four pilgrims in each room. We have put barriers between each bed to apply social distancing, ”tour operator Hadi Fouad told AFP.
“For the common areas of the camp, such as the prayer area and the cafeteria, we have assigned a security company whose guards are spread all over the camp to make sure there are no people.”
At the culmination of the Hajj, the faithful will climb Mount Arafat on Monday.
Also known as the “Mount of Mercy,” it is the place where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon. Worship services will include hours of prayers and Koranic recitals.
After descending the next day, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic “stoning of the devil.”
Not being able to act #Hajj last year, that # Hajj2021 pilgrim gives thanks to God for allowing him to be one of the few pilgrims making the annual Islamic pilgrimage this year. #FacesOfHajj #InPeaceAndSecurity pic.twitter.com/rnPnOrIfdg
– Hajj 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 assumed by all Muslims with the media at least once in a lifetime.
This year’s pilgrimage is larger than the reduced version of 2020, but is drastically smaller than in normal times, creating resentment among Muslims abroad who are once again banned.
Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online verification system, with the event limited to fully vaccinated adults aged 18 to 65 years without chronic disease.
“I thank God that we received approval to come, although we did not expect it because of 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,” he said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the kingdom has reported at least 462,000 cases of the virus with 7,500 deaths.
According to the World Health Organization, it has administered about 15.4 million doses of coronavirus vaccines. The kingdom is home to more than 30 million people.
The Hajj, which usually packs large crowds at congested religious sites, is potentially a more widespread event of the virus.
But the Hajj ministry has said it is working on “the highest levels of health precautions” in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
Groups of pilgrims have arrived in Mina on Tarwiyah Day, the eighth day of the Islamic month of Dhu Al-Hijjah and the beginning of his journey with the Hajj.
Pilgrims are divided into groups of only 20 “to restrict exposure to only 20, limiting the spread of the infection,” ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi said.
Aside from strict social distancing measures, authorities have introduced a “smart Hajj card” to allow contactless access to camps, hotels and buses to transfer pilgrims through religious sites.
The Hajj advanced last year on the smallest scale in modern history.
Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said up to 10,000 eventually participated.
“Public health teams monitor the health status of pilgrims 24 hours a day when they arrive in Mecca,” said Sari Asiri, director of the Hajj and Umrah department of the health ministry, of this year’s precautions. .
Anyone found infected would be taken to isolation facilities, he added.