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Saudi welcomes 1million for biggest Hajj pilgrimage since pandemic

#Saudi #welcomes #1million #biggest #Hajj #pilgrimage #pandemic

White-robed worshipers from around the world have filled the streets of Mecca as Islam’s holiest city prepares to host the largest Haj pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic.

Banners welcoming the faithful, including the first international visitors since 2019, adorned squares and alleyways while armed security forces patrolled the ancient city, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed.

“This is pure joy,” Sudanese pilgrim Abdel Qader Kheder told AFP in Mecca ahead of the event, which is expected to start on Wednesday. “I almost can’t believe I’m here. I enjoy every moment.”

One million people, including 850,000 from abroad, will be allowed to attend this year’s Hajj – a key pillar of Islam that all able-bodied Muslims must perform at least once – after two years with numbers drastically restricted due to the pandemic.

At least 650,000 overseas pilgrims have arrived in Saudi Arabia so far, the authorities said on Sunday.

In 2019, about 2.5 million people took part in the rituals, which included the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the imposing black cube in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, the assembly at Mount Arafat, and the “stoning of the devil” in Mina.

The following year, foreigners were barred and worshipers limited to just 10,000 by 2021, increasing to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents to prevent the Hajj from becoming a global super-spread.

One million vaccinated pilgrims under the age of 65 will attend the Hajj under strict sanitary conditions, with the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, being cleaned and disinfected ten times a day.

The rituals have seen numerous disasters, including a stampede in 2015 that killed up to 2,300 people and an attack by hundreds of gunmen in 1979 that claimed 153 lives, according to official figures.

– Unaccompanied women –

Pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, is a powerful source of prestige for the conservative desert kingdom and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, returning from the diplomatic desert.

Days after the Hajj, Prince Mohammed will greet US President Joe Biden, who, amid oil prices boosted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has reneged on his promises to reconcile Saudi Arabia over the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents to turn “Pariah” has not complied with .

The hajj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, is a revenue maker for the world’s largest oil exporter, which together with other religious visits brings in about $12 billion a year.

It’s also a chance to showcase a country that is in the throes of rapid change, yet regularly draws complaints about human rights abuses and restrictions on personal liberties.

Saudi Arabia – which has allowed raves in Riyadh and mixed-sex beaches in Jeddah as part of recent reforms – is now also allowing women to attend Hajj unaccompanied by a male relative, a requirement dropped last year.

– ‘Serenity’ –

Masks are no longer mandatory in most indoor spaces in Saudi Arabia, but they are mandatory in the Grand Mosque. Pilgrims from abroad must present a negative PCR test result.

The Grand Mosque is washed “ten times a day… by more than 4,000 male and female workers,” using more than 130,000 liters (34,000 gallons) of disinfectant each time, authorities said.

Since the pandemic began, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, 9,000 of them fatal, in a population of about 34 million.

Another challenge alongside Covid is the scorching sun in one of the hottest and driest regions on the planet, made even more extreme by the effects of climate change.

Although summer has only just begun, temperatures in parts of Saudi Arabia have already passed the 50 degree mark.

But for Iraqi pilgrim Ahmed Abdul-Hassan al-Fatlawi, the hot weather is the last thing on his mind in Mecca.

“I’m 60 years old so it’s normal to get physically tired because of the hot weather, but I’m in a state of serenity and that’s all that matters to me,” he told AFP.

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