Saudi Arabia: Hajj pilgrimage returns to pre-COVID levels

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates –

Authorities say the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia will return to pre-pandemic levels this year after restrictions caused annual religious celebrations to be cut due to concerns about coronavirus, authorities said.

The Hajj, required for all healthy Muslims once in a lifetime, represents one of the world’s largest mass gatherings. Before the pandemic, the pilgrimage drew millions each year to Islam’s holy city of Mecca, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba to which observant Muslims pray five times a day.

In 2019, more than 2.4 million people joined the pilgrimage. But in 2020, amid the lockdown caused by the pandemic, Saudi Arabia significantly cut back on the hajj with only 1,000 Saudi residents allowed to participate. It was an unprecedented move even during the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people worldwide.

In 2021, about 60,000 residents of Saudi Arabia attended. Last year saw 1 million faithful make the pilgrimage.

Speaking on Monday night at a conference on hajj in the port city of Jeddah, Saudi Hajj and Minister Umrah Tawfiq bin Fawzan al-Rabiah announced the lifting of restrictions.

“I bring you two good news in this meeting. First: The number of pilgrims returns to pre-pandemic levels without any age restrictions,” al-Rabiah said. , according to Saudi Arabia’s State Press Service. .

“And the second thing: Allow any hajj mission from around the world to transact with any licensed company that meets the requirements of pilgrims in those countries,” he added. .

Only people between the ages of 18 and 65 have been able to attend the hajj in recent years. Saudi Arabia also restricts private companies that can arrange travel for the hajj.

The coronavirus is not the first public health disaster to hit the hajj. The kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family stakes its legitimacy on the oil-rich nation in monitoring and protecting hajj sites. Making sure the hajj happens is their top priority — and a major economic driver of billions of dollars in non-oil revenue for Saudi Arabia.

Disease outbreaks have always been a concern around hajj. Pilgrims fought an outbreak of malaria in 632, cholera in 1821 which killed about 20,000, and another cholera outbreak in 1865 that killed 15,000 before spreading. Around the world.

More recently, Saudi Arabia has faced danger from another coronavirus, the one that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. The kingdom stepped up public health measures during the hajj in 2012 and 2013, urging the sick and elderly not to participate.

In recent years, Saudi officials have also issued a ban on pilgrims coming from countries affected by the Ebola virus.

It is unclear what health precautions will be taken for the hajj, according to this year’s moon-based Islamic calendar at the end of June. Although Saudi Arabia has no requirements for vaccines or coronavirus testing, it does require pilgrims to be vaccinated for other malignancies.

Muslims are forbidden to kiss or touch the cube-shaped Kaaba, the metaphorical house of God in the center of Mecca that pilgrims circle as they complete the hajj.

Hajj also involves close contact in large crowds, which in 2015 saw more than 2,400 people killed in a jostling and stampede.

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