First wave of pilgrims arrive in Mecca for hajj
Authorities in Saudi Arabia confirmed visitors began descending upon the holy city on Saturday evening to prepare for the pilgrimage, which this year starts on July 29.
"Hajj pilgrims arrive to the Sacred House of God in Mecca," the official Saudi Press Agency [SPA] announced via Twitter.
Though usually an event that has millions gather in the holiest city of Islam, this year's pilgrimage comes under strange circumstances that have forced authorities to impose strict measures amid the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic.
Some 2.5 million people from all over the world usually participate in the ritual that takes place over several days, centred on the holy city of Mecca.
This year Saudi Arabia announced it would hold a "very limited" hajj, restricting the pilgrimage to just 1,000 people already present in the kingdom, 70 percent of which are expected to be foreigners.
However, press reports have suggested up to 10,000 people may take part.
The ritual will be restricted to medical professionals and security personnel who have recovered from the virus, the hajj ministry said.
The Saudi ministry of interior confirmed in a statement carried by SPA that it has imposed a tight security cordon around the holy sites, warning against those attempting to sneak their way into participating in the pilgrimage without prior permission.
At least 16 people have already been arrested for violating the cordons, the statement said.
The decision to exclude pilgrims arriving from outside Saudi Arabia is a first in the kingdom's modern history and has sparked disappointment among Muslims worldwide, although many accepted it was necessary due to the pandemic.
The pilgrims will be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Mecca and are required to quarantine at home after the ritual, according to health officials.
Saudi Arabia has seen an uptick in both confirmed infections and deaths from Covid-19 since easing movement restrictions in late May. It has yet to restore international air links.
The hajj - a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime - could be a major source of contagion, as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.
The Saudi-based Muslim World League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have backed the government's move for the health and safety of pilgrims.
But the decision still risks angering hardline Muslims for whom religion trumps health concerns.
A scaled-down hajj represents a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.
Read also: New Hajj guidelines in Saudi Arabia include bottled holy water and sterilised pebbles
The smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage was already suspended in March.
Together, they add $12 billion to the Saudi economy every year, according to government figures.
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 a series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom's management of the pilgrimage.