Hajj 2020 begins – with 1,000 pilgrims, instead of the usual 2 million

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(CNN) – Islam’s largest annual pilgrimage began on Tuesday with just a small fraction of its regular number of worshipers, amid concerns over the coronavirus.

Only around 1,000 pilgrims will attend the Hajj this year due to new crowd control restrictions put in place by Saudi Arabia. The holy places in the cities of Mecca and Medina normally accommodate more than 2 million people during the pilgrimage.

For the first time in decades, international travelers have been excluded from the Hajj. About 70% of this year’s worshipers are foreign residents of Saudi Arabia, with the remainder being Saudi nationals. All those selected to participate are between 20 and 50 years old.

Saudi Arabia – which has the highest number of Covid-19 infections in the Arab world – called this year’s Hajj “unprecedented”. Previously, Saudi authorities had hinted that the annual pilgrimage, one of Islam’s five main pillars, could be canceled, calling on would-be pilgrims to put their plans on hold.

Staff inspect preparations around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca on July 26.

Saudi Ministry of Media / AFP / Getty Images

“The Hajj in 2020 is a truly exceptional pilgrimage in all respects,” Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten said, according to a statement from the kingdom’s media ministry. “Due to the exceptional global health circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic, strict precautionary measures have been applied to ensure a healthy Hajj for all pilgrims. ”

Workers disinfect pilgrims’ luggage in the lobby of a hotel near the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Saudi Ministry of Media / AFP / Getty Images

Authorities say pilgrims performing Hajj this year went through a rigorous screening process and had to go through periods of self-isolation before arriving in holy cities. They should be quarantined after their arrival and upon their return, according to the media ministry.

“This is a very special situation we find ourselves in,” said Kehinde Qasim Yusuf, an Australian pilgrim at this year’s Hajj. “We also have the privilege of performing Hajj on behalf of the entire Muslim world. ”

Workers and security at the Grand Mosque complex, masked and socially estranged due to the Covid-19 pandemic, pray together.

Workers and security at the Grand Mosque complex, masked and socially estranged due to the Covid-19 pandemic, pray together.

AFP / Getty Images

For pilgrims to whom CNN spoke, the Hajj is a relief after months of confinement and being away from their families.

“Honestly, with all that I have been through, going through isolation and having a family so far away, the opportunity to do Hajj made up for it all,” said Yusuf, assistant professor at Taibah University in Medina.

Saudi Arabia has nearly 270,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 2,700 deaths. Earlier this year, he suspended Umrah – a smaller version of Hajj that can take place at any time of the year – for fear of spreading the pandemic.

The Hajj is one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. It occurs two months and 10 days after the end of Ramadan, during the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah.

A photo taken on July 26 shows the pillar that Muslim pilgrims threw stones at during a symbolic stoning of the devil, in the Mina district of Mecca.

A photo taken on July 26 shows the pillar that Muslim pilgrims threw stones at during a symbolic stoning of the devil, in the Mina district of Mecca.

Stringer / AFP / Getty Images

The height of the Hajj corresponds to the great Islamic holy day of Eid al-Adha, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on divine orders.

The five-day pilgrimage includes many detailed rituals, including the wearing of a special garment that symbolizes human equality and unity before God, a circular procession counterclockwise around the Kaaba and the symbolic stoning of evil.

Another pilgrim, Sarah Lagdaa, 29, Franco-Moroccan, says that “everything happened so quickly in the process of application, selection, then passing the medical and preparation tests”.

“So 40s is really a precious time to take a break, rest and reflect,” she told CNN. “My mother cried with joy when I told her. We haven’t seen each other since December 2019. ”

Pilgrims arrive at King Abdulaziz Airport for the Hajj pilgrimage on July 25.

Pilgrims arrive at King Abdulaziz Airport for the Hajj pilgrimage on July 25.

Yasser Bakhsh / AP

“I feel that having your daughter away from you and taking such a big step in her faith as an adult makes her proud.

Commenting on the security measures, Lagdaa said it only made him feel better about performing Hajj.

“I am happy about this quarantine because it means that the Hajj ministry takes good care of the pilgrims and puts health first,” she said.

“I actually think there would never be a better time to perform Hajj for me. ”

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