MAKKAH: In this file photo taken on April 3, 2020, worshippers walk around the sacred Kaaba in the Grand Mosque. - AFP

RIYADH: Saudi authorities said Monday only people immunized against COVID-19 will be allowed to perform the year-round umrah pilgrimage from the start of Ramadan, the holy fasting month for Muslims. The hajj and umrah ministry said in a statement that three categories of people would be considered "immunized" - those who have received two doses of the vaccine, those administered a single dose at least 14 days prior, and people who have recovered from the infection.

Only those people will be eligible for permits to perform umrah, as well as to attend prayers in the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah. The policy would effectively "raise the operational capacity" of the Grand Mosque during Ramadan, it said, adding that the condition also applies for entry into the Prophet's (PBUH) Mosque in the holy city of Madinah.

The ministry said the policy starts with Ramadan, which is due to begin later this month, but it was unclear how long it would last. It was also not clear whether the policy, which comes amid an uptick in coronavirus infections in the kingdom, would be extended to the annual hajj pilgrimage later this year. Saudi Arabia has reported more than 393,000 coronavirus infections and 6,700 deaths from COVID-19. The kingdom's health ministry said it has administered more than five million coronavirus vaccine doses, in a country with a population of over 34 million.

The announcement comes after King Salman replaced the hajj minister last month, less than a year after the kingdom hosted the smallest hajj in modern history due to the pandemic. Mohammad Benten was relieved from his post and replaced by Essam bin Saeed, according to a royal decree published by official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

In late July last year, the kingdom hosted a downsized hajj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime. Only up to 10,000 Muslim residents of Saudi Arabia itself were allowed to take part, a far cry from the 2.5 million Muslims from around the world who participated in 2019. It is unclear how many pilgrims will be allowed for hajj this year. According to the pro-government Okaz newspaper, only vaccinated pilgrims will likely be permitted this year.

In a relaxation of coronavirus curbs last October, Saudi Arabia opened the Grand Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months and partially resumed the umrah pilgrimage. The umrah, the pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time, usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year. Authorities said the umrah will be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.

Saudi Arabia's custodianship of Makkah and Madinah - Islam's two holiest sites - is seen as its most powerful source of the monarchy's political legitimacy. The holy sites are also a key revenue earner for the kingdom, whose economy has been badly hit by the pandemic. - AFP