MAKKAH: The Saudi kingdom is allowing only 60,000 fully vaccinated residents to take part, seeking to repeat last year´s success that saw no virus outbreak during the five-day ritual.
Pilgrims began arriving in the holy city of Makkah on Saturday for the second downsized Haj staged during the coronavirus pandemic, circling Islam´s holiest site in masks and on distanced paths.
This year's Haj, with participants chosen through a lottery, is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020 but drastically smaller than in normal times, stoking resentment among Muslims abroad who are barred once again.
After being loaded on buses and brought to M Makkah's Grand Mosque, pilgrims began performing the "tawaf", the circumambulation of the Kaaba towards which Muslims around the world pray. Many carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat. "Every three hours, 6,000 people enter to perform the tawaf of arrival," Haj Ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed said. "After each group leaves, a sterilisation process is carried out at the sanctuary."-
The Haj, usually one of the world´s largest annual religious gatherings with some 2.5 million people taking part in 2019, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.
It consists of a series of religious rites, formally starting on Sunday, which are completed over five days in Islam´s holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.
On Sunday the pilgrims will move on to Mina, around five kilometres away from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat, where it is believed that the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) delivered his final sermon.
Chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, the event is confined to those who have been fully vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, according to the Haj Ministry. The ministry has said it is working on the "highest levels of health precautions" in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
Pilgrims will be divided into groups of just 20 "to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection", ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi told official media.