VIDEO: A million maskless pilgrims begin largest Hajj of COVID-19 era

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In this combo photo, pilgrims pray around the Holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah on Wednesday. AFP

Hundreds of thousands of mostly maskless worshippers circled Islam’s holiest site in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, on the first day of the biggest Hajj pilgrimage since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

One million fully vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed at this year’s Hajj in the Holy City of Makkah, a big rise after two years of drastically curtailed numbers due to policies to stop the spread of infection.

At Makkah’s Grand Mosque, pilgrims performed the “tawaf,” the circumambulation of the Holy Kaaba.

Hajj-2022-AFP Pilgrims pray around the Holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque. AFP

Authorities said last month that masks would be required at the site, but that has been largely ignored so far. Many pilgrims held umbrellas to block the hot sun as the temperature climbed to 42˚C.

The Saudi health ministry has prepared 23 hospitals and 147 health centres in Makkah and Madinah, the second-holiest city in Islam, to accommodate pilgrims, state media reported this week.

That includes allocating more than 1,000 beds for patients requiring intensive care and more than 200 specifically for heatstroke patients, while dispatching more than 25,000 health workers to respond to cases as they arise.

Haji-2022 Pilgrims are pictured inside the Grand Mosque in Makkah. AFP

The Hajj poses a considerable security challenge and has seen several disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 people. No incidents had been reported as of Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s all going well so far. I have moved around a lot and saw rules are being respected,” said Faten Abdel Moneim, a 65-year-old Egyptian mother of four. “I hope it stays this way.”

Five days of rituals

This year’s Hajj is larger than the pared-down versions staged in 2020 and 2021 but still smaller than in normal times.

In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world participated in the annual event — a key pillar of Islam that able-bodied Muslims must undertake at least once in their lives.

But after that, the coronavirus outbreak forced a dramatic downsizing. Just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom took part in 2021, up from a few thousand in 2020.

The pilgrimage consists of a series of religious rites which are completed over five days in Islam’s holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.

Hajj-pilgrims-2022 Pilgrims are pictured inside the Grand Mosque in Makkah. AFP

On Thursday, the pilgrims will move to Mina, around five kilometres away from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat, where it is believed the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) delivered his final sermon.

Four hospitals and 26 health centres are ready to treat pilgrims in Mina, state media said, while the visitors will stay in air-conditioned white tents.

“It’s our duty as Muslims to come here,” said Iraqi teacher Sundus Said, 46. “A lot of people in Iraq want to go, but they can’t all do it. I am here now and this is just great.”

This year’s Hajj is restricted to vaccinated Muslims under the age of 65 chosen from millions of applicants through an online lottery system. Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia were required to submit a negative COVID-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.

Since the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has registered more than 795,000 coronavirus cases, more than 9,000 of them fatal.

‘It’s just too hot’

Those attempting to perform the Hajj without a permit face fines of 10,000 Saudi riyals (around $2,600).

Policemen in the mountainous city have set up checkpoints and conducted foot patrols.

Some pilgrims have donned clothing featuring the names and flags of their countries. “Hajj 2020 — Chad” was written on the back of the white robes of one group.

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

“Being here is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I can’t wait for the rest,” said 42-year-old Egyptian pilgrim Naima Mohsen, who came to the Grand Mosque unaccompanied. “My only problem is the weather. It’s just too hot.”

Agence France-Presse

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