The first Muslim worshipers arrived at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, western Saudi Arabia, on Saturday for the start of the hajj, a major annual pilgrimage marked for the second year in a row by an ultra-limited quota of pilgrims due to the COVID-19.

Only 60,000 Saudis and foreigners resident in the kingdom and vaccinated have been allowed to participate in the hajj this year. In 2020, barely ten thousand worshipers – the smallest number in the modern history of this gathering – had been able to make it, at the height of health restrictions and before the race for vaccination.

Very far behind the some 2.5 million who came from around the world in 2019, before the pandemic.

On Saturday morning, hundreds of worshipers divided into small groups began to circle the Kaaba, the black cubic structure located at the heart of the Grand Mosque and which Muslims around the world turn to for prayer.

This practice, called “tawaf” in Arabic, marks the beginning of the hajj, before the official launch of the other rites which will begin on Sunday.

Among the lucky winners this year was Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil entrepreneur based in the eastern town of Dammam. He was selected with his wife and three adult children from 558,000 applicants.

” We are pleased. So many of our friends and relatives have been rejected, ”he says.

In early July, the Hajj ministry assured it wanted to comply with “the highest levels of health precautions” in the face of the spread of new variants.

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“Disinfection process”

Only vaccinated residents, aged 18 to 65 and not suffering from any chronic illness, can participate in the hajj this year.

On Saudi television channels, interviews with officials follow one another to insist on the restrictions put in place.

The pilgrims will be divided into groups of 20 people to “limit the spread of the virus” in case one is infected, a Saudi official, Mohammed al-Bijaoui, said on television.

“Every three hours, 6,000 people come in to perform the arrival tawaf,” Hajj ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed told AFP. “After each group has left, a disinfection process is carried out at the sanctuary. “

In addition to strict social distancing measures, the Hajj Ministry introduced an “electronic hajj card” allowing contactless access to campsites and hotels for pilgrims and transport to religious sites.

“Lottery”

Robots are used to distribute holy water bottles and pilgrims are not allowed to touch the Kaaba.

During the hajj last year, no cases of COVID-19 were reported as authorities put in place severe restrictions and distributed sterilized kits including disinfectants, masks, a prayer mat and an ihram, the Traditional seamless white garment of hajj.

The great pilgrimage, which takes place once a year, is one of the five pillars of Islam that Muslims must accomplish at least once in their life if their health and finances permit.

“I cannot describe how I feel. We just want to cry and get closer to God, ”says Rania Azraq, a 38-year-old Syrian housewife who lives in Riyadh.

“I have the impression of having won the lottery”, testifies Mohammed El Eter, an Egyptian pharmacist. “It is a special and unforgettable moment in life. I thank God for giving me this chance, ”added the 30-something.

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Dissatisfaction

First economy in the Arab world thanks to the export of oil, the Saudi Sunni kingdom has largely built its international aura thanks to pilgrimages, which also establish its political authority in the Muslim world.

The ban on pilgrims coming from abroad for the second year in a row, supported by Islamic institutions in the Sunni world, however, caused discontent among many Muslims.

The less fortunate sometimes save a lifetime to be able to pay for the important expenses of the trip to Mecca one day.

“I’m finally financially ready and now it’s the coronavirus that prevents me ”, lamented Amina Gaafar, a 58-year-old Egyptian, who has been saving for 30 years to“ go to meet God ”.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 500,000 infections, including more than 8,000 deaths. About 20 million doses of vaccine have been administered in this country of more than 34 million people.

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