Muslim pilgrims have started arriving in Mecca for a downsized hajj to being on Wednesday amid coronavirus pandemic.
The hajj normally draws around 2.5 million people for five days of worship in one of the world’s largest gatherings of people from around the world.
However, this year, Saudi Arabia’s Hajj Ministry has said between 1,000 and 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage, reports AP.
Among those only two-thirds pilgrims will be from among foreign residents in Saudi Arabia and one-third will be Saudi citizens.
The kingdom has one of the Mideast’s largest outbreaks of the coronavirus, with nearly 269,000 reported infections, including 2,760 deaths.
Saudi Health Ministry officials came to an approved pilgrim, Fatin Daud, a 25-year-old Malaysian who is studying Arabic in Saudi Arabia, tested her for the COVID-19 virus.
Fatin Daud was then given an electronic bracelet that monitors her movements, and told to quarantine for several days at home.
Daud was moved to a hotel in Mecca, where she remains in self-isolation, still wearing the electronic wristband an a large box of food is delivered to her hotel room three times a day as she prepares to begin the hajj.
After being selected for performing Hajj, Daud said that “It was unbelievable. It felt surreal because I was not expecting to get it.”
She said she’s praying for the end of COVID-19 and for unity among Muslims around the world.
“I’m confident that safety measures are being taken and that the only thing that we need to do as pilgrims is follow instructions, and try our best to support each other,” she added.
The Saudi government is covering the expenses of all pilgrims this year, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation, transportation and health care.
Usually, the hajj can cost thousands of dollars for pilgrims who save for a lifetime for the journey. It also generates billions of dollars in revenue each year for Saudi Arabia.
Saudi kings have for generations assumed titles as custodians of Islam’s holiest sites, and their oversight of the hajj is a source of prestige and influence among Muslims globally.
International media were not given permission to cover the hajj from Mecca this year.
Saudi Arabia has never canceled the hajj in the nearly 90 years since the country was founded.
For the first time in Saudi history, no pilgrims from abroad were permitted to take part in the hajj due to concerns about the coronavirus and overcrowding.
Pilgrims must wear face masks and will only be able to drink holy water from the Zamzam well in Mecca that has been prepackaged in plastic bottles this year.
Pebbles for casting away evil that are usually picked up by pilgrims along hajj routes will be sterilized and bagged before being distributed to the pilgrims.
Pilgrims will also carry their own prayer rugs and will be required to pray at a distance from one another, rather than packed shoulder-to-shoulder.