The annual Hajj pilgrimage began in Saudi Arabia with just a few thousand people gathered in the Arafat Plain on Monday for the start of the five-day rituals.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and a one-time task for all Muslims with a body capable of performing if they can afford it.
In the years before the pandemic, about 2.5 million pilgrims from all over the world flocked to the holiest sites of Islam to participate in the Hajj.
But due to coronavirus-related restrictions on large gatherings, no foreign pilgrims have been allowed to perform Hajj this year.
Only 60,000 vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents between the ages of 18 and 65 were allowed to register for the annual pilgrimage. A year ago, up to 10,000 Saudi citizens and residents were allowed to perform Hajj.
“I feel very lucky and really blessed to be among the few people performing Hajj this year,” Amina told Al Jazeera.
The 50-year-old Saudi resident said she was going on Hajj with a group of other women after Saudi Arabia allowed women to register for the pilgrimage without a male guardian for the first time ever.
Despite limiting the number of pilgrims, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said more than 450,000 people in the kingdom submitted a request within 24 hours of opening the registration platform last month.
Priority was given to people who have not performed Hajj in the last five years and to those over 50 who have not been to Hajj before.
Seif, a 40-year-old Saudi resident, was planning to make the pilgrimage this year but found the packages available unaffordable.
Six years ago, I paid 3,000 riyals [$800] for the same package Id is expected to pay 20,000 riyal [$5,300] for this year, Seif told Al Jazeera. I decided not to apply.
Although Seif said he estimated that the authorities increased prices due to additional health and safety regulations and precautions required to curb the spread of the pandemic, he thought the prices were extortionate.
The pilgrimage will only be for rich people this year, said Seif, who also criticized restrictions on the number of people allowed to attend.
They should have allowed at least double the number of people. The space in which the pilgrimage is performed is large. I think it can safely accommodate more people, he said.
Like Saif, Ibrahim canceled plans to perform Hajj with his wife this year due to high price packages. Still, he wished he could attend.
A country that usually welcomes millions will only have a few thousand, Ibrahim told Al Jazeera. If I had money, I would definitely have gone on Hajj this year it would be easy, organized and just a luxurious experience.
Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Health Minister Hani Jokhdar said at a WHO conference last month the decision to limit participation was for the greater good as they do not want Hajj to turn into a hot spot of infection this year.
Saudi Arabia has established a reputation for successfully managing large crowds as the frequency of major incidents during the Hajj season has dropped significantly in recent years.
In 2015, at least 2,400 pilgrims were killed in one of the deadliest seals during the Hajj. There have been no significant incidents since then. Prior to that, at least 330 pilgrims were killed at a stamped mine in Mina in 2006.
Although the gathering will not pose a challenge to the Saudi authorities this year, the kingdom was determined to ensure that infection levels were contained during the Hajj.
Only people who received the Pfizer, Astrazeneca, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines were able to participate in the Hajj. Pilgrims were tested for coronavirus before arriving in the holy city of Mecca.
Authorities also appointed every 20 pilgrims a health official to lead the group and monitor their compliance with strict health and safety rules.
Access to the holy sites in Mina, Muzdalifah and Mount Arafat will be restricted to those permitted by Hajj.
Physical distance between each pilgrim during rituals, including during mass prayers and while surrounding the Kaaba will be strictly imposed, according to a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Prior to the pilgrimage, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah built additional accommodation and launched a project to fix high-frequency roads for pilgrims, Saudi media reported.
He also launched an electronic portal for pilgrims to purchase all the services and packages required for rituals, and an intelligent card to organize activities, including instructing pilgrims between their accommodation and various ritual sites.
The first day of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca will be on Sunday 18 July, as announced by the Supreme Judicial Court of Saudi Arabia.
For Muslims, Hajj restores the farewell pilgrimage actions of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. He also hears the time of Prophet Abraham, who Muslims believe built the Kaaba, along with his son Ishmael.
With pilgrims coming from all over the globe, all dressed in plain clothes, Hajj strengthens the bonds of brotherhood between Muslims and removes the targets of class, wealth and materialism.
Muslims ultimately perform Hajj with the aim of purifying their souls and reviving their relationship with God.
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