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Saudi Arabia concludes downsized haj amid pandemic

  • News Desk

    Agence France-Presse

Mecca, Saudi Arabia   /   Mon, August 3, 2020   /   09:43 am
Saudi Arabia concludes downsized haj amid pandemic Muslim pilgrims wearing face masks and keeping social distance perform Tawaf around Kaaba during the annual Haj pilgrimage amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia July 31, 2020. (REUTERS/Saudi Ministry of Media/Handout)

Muslim pilgrims circled Islam's holiest site along socially distanced paths Sunday in the final ritual of the haj, the smallest in modern history as Saudi authorities sought to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part in the haj, a far cry from the 2.5 million who took part in the five-day annual pilgrimage last year.

Masked pilgrims threw pebbles at a wall symbolizing Satan in Mina, close to the holy city of Mecca, on the final day of haj, state media reported.

Instead of gathering the pebbles themselves as in past years, they were handed them bagged and sterilized by haj authorities, to protect against the novel coronavirus.

Pilgrims returned to the Grand Mosque in Mecca later Sunday to perform a final "tawaf", or circling of the Kaaba -- a cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray. 

Holding the ritual in the shadow of the pandemic required "double efforts" by Saudi authorities, King Salman said on Friday after being discharged from hospital following surgery to remove his gall bladder.

"The haj this year was restricted to a very limited number of people from multiple nationalities, ensuring the ritual was completed despite the difficult circumstances," said the kingdom's 84-year-old ruler.

Health authorities said no coronavirus cases were reported at the holy sites during the haj.

The pilgrims, who were required to observe social distancing and subjected to regular temperature checks, will go into mandatory quarantine after the haj, authorities said. 

The ritual, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings.

But local media said up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom were participating this year.

The haj ministry had initially said around 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed.

The haj typically costs thousands of dollars for pilgrims, who often save for years as well as endure long waiting lists for a chance to attend.

But this year, the Saudi government is covering the expenses of all pilgrims, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation and health care, worshippers said.