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Saudi Arabia welcomes one million in largest Haj since virus

MAKKAH, SAUDI ARABIA (AP) – One million Muslim pilgrims converged on Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Makkah yesterday for the largest Haj since the coronavirus pandemic severely curtailed access to one of Islam’s five pillars.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow some 850,000 Muslims from abroad to make the annual pilgrimage, which begins today, marks a major step toward normalcy after two years of Haj restricted to Saudi residents.

The one million foreign and domestic pilgrims participating is still far less than the 2.5 million Muslims who travelled in 2019 for the pilgrimage.

Those performing the ritual this year must be under 65, vaccinated against the coronavirus and have tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of travel. The pilgrims are chosen from millions of applicants through an online lottery system.

Saudi officials inspected the holy site yesterday and stressed their “readiness” to receive pilgrims with the goal of “maintaining public health”.

After the coronavirus struck in 2020, Saudi authorities allowed just 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom to attend, prompting historians to compare the disruption to the site’s storming by extremists and dramatic closure in 1979.

Worshippers pray around the Kaabah at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Makkah. PHOTO: AFP
Pilgrims arrive outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Makkah. PHOTO: AFP

Last year, the Haj was similarly restricted to 60,000 fully vaccinated Muslims living in Saudi Arabia. The unprecedented curbs sent shock waves throughout the Muslim world, devastating many believers who had spent years saving up for the religious rite.

This year, however, Saudi authorities are keen to relax virus curbs. Religious pilgrimages brought in USD12 billion before the pandemic – accounting for the largest percentage of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product after oil.

Although cases have risen steadily to over 500 a day in Saudi Arabia, the government lifted the country’s indoor mask mandate and other precautions last month. Roughly 70 per cent of the country has been vaccinated against the virus.

Al-Quran says that all Islam’s followers who are physically and financially able should make the pilgrimage once in their lifetime. Pilgrims travel to Makkah from all over the world for five intense days of worship, carrying out a series of rituals.