Makkah re-opens for limited Umrah pilgrimage

MAKKAH, SAUDI ARABIA (AFP) – Mask-clad Muslims circled Islam’s holiest site along socially distanced paths yesterday, as Saudi authorities partially resumed the year-round Umrah pilgrimage with extensive health precautions adopted after a seven-month coronavirus hiatus.

Thousands of worshippers entered the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah in batches to perform the ritual of circling the sacred Kaabah.

The Umrah, the pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time, usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year but it was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It will be revived in three phases, with Saudi Haj Minister Mohammad Benten saying last week that 6,000 pilgrims per day will be allowed in the first stage to perform the Umrah “meticulously and within a specified period of time”.

A raft of precautions have been adopted to ward off any outbreaks, according to state media. The revered Black Stone in the eastern corner of the Kaabah – which it is customary but not mandatory to touch during the pilgrimage – will be out of reach, and the Grand Mosque is to be sterilised before and after each group of worshippers.

Muslims pray around the Kaabah during the first day of Umrah in the Muslim holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: AP

Each group of 20 or 25 pilgrims are to be accompanied by a health worker and medical teams will be on the ground in case of an emergency, Benten said.

“In an atmosphere of faith and with assured hearts… the first batch of pilgrims begin the pilgrimage in accordance with the precautionary measures laid out,” the Haj Ministry said on Twitter.

Under the second stage from October 18, the number of Umrah pilgrims will be increased to 15,000 per day.

Visitors from abroad will be permitted in the third stage from November 1, when capacity will be raised to 20,000. A maximum of 40,000 people, including other worshippers, will be allowed to perform prayers at the mosque in the second stage and 60,000 in the third, according to the Interior Ministry.

The decision to resume the pilgrimage was taken in response to the “aspirations of Muslims home and abroad” to perform the ritual and visit the holy sites, the ministry said last month.