Saudi Arabia concludes reduced hajj amid pandemic

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Mecca (Saudi Arabia) (AFP)

Muslim pilgrims surrounded Islam’s holiest site along socially distant paths on Sunday in the latest hajj ritual, the smallest in modern history as Saudi officials sought to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part in the hajj, a far cry from the 2.5 million who took part in the annual five-day pilgrimage last year.

Masked pilgrims threw pebbles at a wall symbolizing Satan in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca on the last day of the hajj, state media reported.

Instead of picking up the pebbles themselves as in previous years, they put them back in bags and sterilized by the hajj authorities, to protect themselves against the new coronavirus.

Pilgrims returned to the Grand Mosque of Mecca later Sunday to perform a final “tawaf,” or circling the Kaaba – a cubic structure that Muslims around the world pray to.

Holding the ritual in the shadow of the pandemic required “a double effort” from the Saudi authorities, King Salman said on Friday after being released from hospital following surgery to remove his gallbladder.

“This year’s hajj has been limited to a very limited number of people of multiple nationalities, ensuring that the ritual is completed despite the difficult circumstances,” said the kingdom’s ruler, 84.

Health officials said no cases of the coronavirus were reported in holy places during the hajj.

Pilgrims, who were required to observe social distancing and subject to regular temperature checks, will enter mandatory quarantine after the hajj, authorities said.

The ritual, one of the five pillars of Islam and a staple for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the largest religious gatherings in the world.

But local media said up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom were participating this year.

The hajj ministry initially said that around 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed.

The hajj typically costs thousands of dollars for pilgrims, who often save for years and endure long waiting lists for a chance to attend.

But this year, the Saudi government is covering the expenses of all pilgrims, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation and healthcare, worshipers said.

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