DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia will return to pre-pandemic levels this year after restrictions reduced the annual religious commemoration due to concerns over the coronavirus, according to authorities.
The hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their lifetime, represents one of the largest gatherings of people in the world. Before the pandemic, the pilgrimage drew millions of people each year to Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba to which devout Muslims pray five times a day.
In 2019, more than 2.4 million people took part in the pilgrimage. But in 2020, amid pandemic-triggered lockdowns, Saudi Arabia drastically scaled back the hajj with as few as 1,000 residents of Saudi Arabia allowed to participate. It was an unprecedented move, even during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions around the world.
In 2021, some 60,000 residents of Saudi Arabia took part. Last year, 1 million worshipers made the pilgrimage.
Speaking at a hajj conference in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Monday night, Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq bin Fawzan al-Rabiah announced the lifting of restrictions.
“I bring you two good news in this meeting. The first: the return of the number of pilgrims to what it was before the pandemic without any age restrictions,” al-Rabiah said, according to the Saudi Press Agency. managed by the state.
“And the second: to allow any hajj mission around the world to deal with any approved company that meets the requirements of pilgrims from these countries,” he added.
Only people between the ages of 18 and 65 could attend the hajj in recent years. Saudi Arabia had also limited the number of private companies that could organize hajj trips.
The coronavirus is not the first public health disaster to hit the hajj. The kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family stakes its legitimacy in the oil-rich nation on monitoring and protecting hajj sites. Ensuring the hajj takes place has been a priority for them – and also a main economic driver bringing billions of dollars in non-oil revenue to Saudi Arabia.
Epidemics have always been a concern surrounding the hajj. Pilgrims fought off a malaria epidemic in 632, cholera in 1821 killed around 20,000 people, and another cholera epidemic in 1865 killed 15,000 before spreading around the world.
More recently, Saudi Arabia has been threatened by another coronavirus, the one that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. The kingdom tightened its public health measures during the hajj in 2012 and 2013, urging the sick and the elderly not to participate.
In recent years, Saudi authorities have also instituted bans on pilgrims from Ebola-affected countries.
It was not immediately clear what health precautions would be taken for the hajj, which falls on the lunar Islamic calendar this year at the end of June. Although Saudi Arabia has no requirements for coronavirus vaccines or testing, it does require pilgrims to be vaccinated against other diseases.
Muslims are prohibited from kissing or touching the cube-shaped Kaaba, the metaphorical house of God in the center of Mecca that pilgrims surround when performing the hajj.
The hajj also involves close contact in large crowds, which in 2015 saw more than 2,400 people killed in a crush and stampede..
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