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Saudi welcomes 1million for biggest Hajj pilgrimage since pandemic

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

Worshipers in white robes from around the world have packed the streets of Islam’s holiest city ahead of the largest Hajj pilgrimage since the start of 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 officially begins 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 after two years with drastically reduced numbers due to the pandemic. The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, which all able-bodied Muslims with the means have to complete at least once.

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

But authorities on Monday barred nearly 100,000 people from entering Mecca and erected a security cordon around the holy city. A security official said 288 people were arrested and fined for attempting to perform the hajj without a permit.

In 2019, about 2.5 million people took part in the rituals, which include the assembly at Mount Arafat and the “stoning of the devil” at Mina.

The following year, as the pandemic took hold, foreigners were barred and worshipers limited to just 10,000 to prevent the Hajj from becoming a global super-spreader.

That number rose to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents by 2021.

Pilgrims this year – only those under the age of 65 are admitted – will participate under strict sanitary conditions.

The Hajj has witnessed numerous disasters over the years, 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 –

On Monday afternoon, pilgrims carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun flocked to souvenir and barber shops in Mecca, while others shared their meals under palm trees on streets near the Grand Mosque.

Many newcomers had already begun to perform the first ritual of walking around the Kaaba, the large black cubic structure at the center of the Grand Mosque, seven times.

The Kaaba, made of granite and covered in a cloth with verses from the Koran, is almost 15 meters high. It is the structure that all Muslims turn to for prayer, no matter where they are in the world.

“When I saw the Kaaba for the first time, I felt something strange and started crying,” Egyptian pilgrim Mohammed Lotfi told AFP.

The pilgrimage 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 soaring oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, broke his vow to send Saudi Arabia over the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Ukraine to turn a “pariah”.

The Hajj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, is a moneymaker for the world’s largest oil exporter trying to diversify its economy. In normal years, the pilgrimage brings in billions of dollars.

It is also an opportunity to demonstrate the kingdom’s rapid social change despite persistent complaints of human rights violations and restrictions on personal liberties.

Saudi Arabia now allows women to attend Hajj unaccompanied by male relatives, a requirement that was dropped last year.

– ‘Serenity’ –

Masks are no longer mandatory in most indoor spaces in Saudi Arabia, but they will be mandatory in the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site. 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.

Aside from Covid, another challenge is the scorching sun in one of the hottest and driest regions in the world, with temperatures already topping 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in parts of Saudi Arabia.

But Iraqi pilgrim Ahmed Abdul-Hassan al-Fatlawi said the heat was 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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