Saudi welcomes 1 million for biggest hajj pilgrimage since pandemic

Islam’s holiest site: the Kaaba (C) at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s city of Mecca

White-robed worshippers from around the world have packed the streets of Islam’s holiest city ahead of the biggest hajj pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Banners welcoming the faithful, including the first international visitors since 2019, adorned squares and alleys, while armed security forces patrolled the ancient city, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed.

One million people, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed at this year’s hajj after two years of drastically curtailed numbers due to the pandemic. The pilgrimage is one of five pillars of Islam, which all able-bodied Muslims with the means are required to perform at least once.

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But authorities on Monday barred nearly 100,000 people from entering Mecca, imposing a security cordon around the holy city. A security official said 288 people were arrested and fined for attempting to perform the hajj without permits.

The following year, when the pandemic took hold, foreigners were barred and worshippers were restricted to just 10,000 to stop the hajj from turning into a global super-spreader.

Pilgrims this year — only those younger than 65 are allowed — will participate under strict sanitary conditions.

– Unaccompanied women –

Many new arrivals had already begun performing the first ritual, which requires walking seven times around the Kaaba, the large black cubic structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque.

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“When I first saw the Kaaba I felt something weird and started crying,” Egyptian pilgrim Mohammed Lotfi told AFP.

Days after the hajj, Prince Mohammed will welcome US President Joe Biden who, with oil prices soaring following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has reneged on a vow to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

It is also a chance to showcase the kingdom’s rapid social transformation, despite persistent complaints about human rights abuses and limits on personal freedoms.

– ‘Serenity’ –

The Grand Mosque will be “washed 10 times a day… by more than 4,000 male and female workers”, with more than 130,000 litres (34,000 gallons) of disinfectant used each time, authorities said.

Aside from Covid, another challenge is the scorching sun in one of the world’s hottest and driest regions, where temperatures have already topped 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in parts of Saudi Arabia.

“I am 60 years old, so it’s normal if I get physically tired because of the hot weather, but I am in a state of serenity, and that’s all that matters to me,” he told AFP.

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