ARAFAT: Thousands of face-masked pilgrims performing Islam’s annual Hajj pilgrimage gathered on Mount Arafat on Monday to atone for their sins, expressing hopes for peace and an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, reports Reuters.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites in Makkah and Medina, has barred worshippers from abroad for a second year running and has restricted entry from within the kingdom under special conditions to guard against the coronavirus and its new variants. Only 60,000 Saudi citizens and residents, aged 18 to 65, who have been fully vaccinated or recovered from the virus and do not suffer from chronic diseases, were selected for the rite, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.“It is an indescribable feeling that I got selected among millions of people to attend the Hajj. I pray for God to put an end to these hard times the whole world has gone through under the coronavirus,” said Um Ahmed, a Palestinian pilgrim who lives in the Saudi capital Riyadh and who said she lost four family members to the virus. In previous years, more than two million pilgrims used to cover Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat, sitting close to each other in the scorching heat of the desert city of Makkah, carrying umbrellas and fans to keep cool as temperatures rose toward 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
This year pilgrims, dressed in white robes signifying a state of purity, had to observe social distancing and wear face masks on Mount Arafat, the hill where Islam holds God tested Abraham’s faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail.
Mount Arafat is also where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gave his last sermon.
“The first prayer is to ask God to lift this pandemic, this curse and this grief for all humanity and for Muslims, so in the next years they are able to attend Hajj and for millions to refill these holy sites,” said Maher Baroody, a Syrian pilgrim.
Being one of the lucky few “gives you a feeling that our God is forgiving and has chosen us to be in this place,” said Selma Mohamed Hegazi, a 45-year-old Egyptian. “God willing, our prayers will be accepted.
“My whole body is shivering,” she told AFP as she stood among the other emotional pilgrims, wearing the ihram, the traditional seamless white garment worn during the hajj.Worshippers described a sense of tranquility descending on the mountain, also known as the “Mount of Mercy”.
“To be one of only 60,000 doing hajj ....I feel like I am part of a (privileged) group that was able to reach this place,” said Baref Siraj, a 58-year-old Saudi national.
The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims with the means to travel at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.
Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.
But barring overseas pilgrims has caused deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, who typically save for years to take part.
Saudi health authorities said on Sunday that not a single Covid case had been reported amongst the pilgrims this year.
The kingdom has so far recorded more than 509,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.
The hajj, which typically packs large crowds into congested religious sites, could have been a super-spreader event for the virus.
But Saudi Arabia has said it is deploying the “highest levels of health precautions” in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
Pilgrims are being divided into groups of just 20 to restrict potential exposure, and a “smart hajj card” has been introduced to allow contact-free access to camps, hotels and the buses to ferry pilgrims around religious sites.
Black-and-white robots have been deployed to dispense bottles of sacred water from the Zamzam spring in Makkah’s Grand Mosque, built around the Kaaba, the black cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.