Mecca to reopen for limited pilgrimages after 7-month pause
Saudi Arabia will reopen the Muslim holy places for the year-round umrah pilgrimage on Sunday, scaled back and with extensive health precautions, seven months after coronavirus prompted its suspension.
The umrah, the pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time, usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year.
It will be revived in three stages, with the initial phase seeing just 6,000 citizens and residents already within the kingdom allowed to take part each day.
"In the first stage, the umrah will be performed meticulously and within a specified period of time," Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten told state television last week.
He said pilgrims will be divided into groups to ensure social distancing within the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Worshippers will on Sunday be able to perform the ritual of circling the sacred Kaaba -- a cubic structure inside the Grand Mosque towards which Muslims around the world pray -- along socially distanced paths.
On October 18, the number of pilgrims will be increased to 15,000 per day, with a maximum of 40,000 people allowed to perform prayers at the mosque.
Visitors from abroad will be permitted from November 1, when capacity will be raised to 20,000 pilgrims, with 60,000 people allowed into the mosque.
The decision to resume the pilgrimage was in response to the "aspirations of Muslims home and abroad" to perform the ritual and visit the holy sites, the interior ministry said last month.
It added that the umrah would be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.
Until then, the health ministry will vet countries from which pilgrims are allowed to enter based on the health risks.
Those wishing to perform the umrah must apply through two mobile applications: one to register they are free from the virus, and another from which they can obtain a permit.
Saudi Arabia suspended the umrah in March and scaled back the annual hajj over fears that the coronavirus could spread to Islam's holiest cities.
The hajj went ahead in late July, on the smallest scale in modern history, with only up to 10,000 Muslims allowed to take part -- a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated last year.
State media have said that a raft of precautions have been adopted to ward off any outbreaks during the umrah.
The revered Black Stone in the eastern corner of the Kaaba -- which it is customary but not mandatory to touch during the pilgrimage -- will be out of reach, while the Grand Mosque will be regularly sterilised before and after each group of worshippers.
Each group will be accompanied by a health worker and medical teams will be on the ground in case of an emergency.
The pilgrimages are a massive logistical challenge, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites, making them vulnerable to contagion.
Saudi Arabia's custodianship of Mecca and Medina -- Islam's two holiest sites -- is seen as its most powerful source of political legitimacy.
The holy sites are also a key revenue earner for the kingdom, whose economy has been badly hit by a coronavirus-driven collapse in world demand for oil.
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