Gaza-based pilgrims to perform Umrah after a two-year suspension is lifted
The Hamas-run Interior Ministry announced that a second group of pilgrims left the coastal enclave on Tuesday, heading to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah after a two-year suspension due to the Covid-19 pandemic was lifted.
In a press statement sent to The New Arab, the ministry said that 350 pilgrims travelled from the coastal enclave through the Rafah crossing, while the first batch of pilgrims left the territory on Monday.
"The pilgrims will be transferred by Egyptian buses from the Rafah crossing to Cairo Airport, and then by air to Al-Madinah Al-Munawara Airport in Saudi Arabia, according to an agreed-upon mechanism with Egyptian and Saudi officials,” the statement said.
Starting this week and until the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Mondays and Tuesdays will be specialised for pilgrims travelling. At the same time, only regular travellers will be allowed to return from Egypt and abroad to the Gaza Strip, the statement noted.
This is the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus two years ago that pilgrims from the besieged Gaza strip are allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia.
Ayman al-Naqa, a 70-year-old pilgrim from Khan Younis city in the south of the strip, expressed his happiness as he has finally got the approval to go to Mecca.
"I have applied my information to the local authorities two years ago to travel to Saudi Arabia, but my trip was suspended because of the new virus," the father of eight told The New Arab, as he awaited his turn to get his passport stamp by Egyptian authorities at the Egyptian border.
"Originally," the elderly man added, "my wife and I wanted to perform the Umrah together, but unfortunately, I am going alone this time because she died due to the coronavirus."
Zeinab al-Nakhala, another Gaza-based pilgrim, 65-years-old, told The New Arab that she hopes to reach Saudi Arabia not only to perform her Umrah but also to meet her sister after 20 years of separation.
"The coronavirus paused all of our lives, in Gaza and all the world," al-Nakhala said. "The Umrah and Hajj seasons are very important for us, not only to enjoy our rituals but also as a means to meet our loved ones who cannot meet here."
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Meanwhile, Saudi authorities have been tightening their Umrah restrictions since cases of the Omicron variant surged at the start of this year - despite a steady decline in Covid-19 case numbers since mid-January.
Umrah is one of two Islamic pilgrimages to Mecca but can be performed any time during the year - unlike Hajj, which occurs in accordance with the Islamic lunar calendar.