MAKKAH: Pilgrims arrive at the Grand Mosque in this holy city at the start of the hajj season yesterday. - AFP

MAKKAH: Pilgrims began arriving in the holy city of Makkah yesterday for the second downsized hajj staged during the coronavirus pandemic, circling Islam's holiest site in masks and on distanced paths. The kingdom is allowing only 60,000 fully vaccinated residents to take part, seeking to repeat last year's success that saw no virus outbreak during the five-day ritual.

This year's hajj, with participants chosen through a lottery, is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020 but drastically smaller than in normal times. After being loaded on buses and brought to Makkah's Grand Mosque, pilgrims began performing the "tawaf", the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth, towards which Muslims around the world pray. Many carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat.

"Every three hours, 6,000 people enter to perform the tawaf of arrival," hajj ministry spokesman Hisham al-Saeed told AFP. "After each group leaves, a sterilization process is carried out at the sanctuary." The hajj, usually one of the world's largest annual religious gatherings with some 2.5 million people taking part in 2019, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.

It consists of a series of religious rites, formally starting today, which are completed over five days in Islam's holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia. Among the chosen ones this year was Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil contractor based in the eastern city of Dammam, who was picked for the ritual along with his wife and three adult children. "We are overjoyed," said Ameen. "So many of our friends and relatives were rejected."

Like the other countries of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia is home to significant expatriate populations from South Asia, the Far East, Africa as well as the Middle East. "I feel like I won a lottery," Egyptian pharmacist Mohammed El Eter said after being selected. "This is a special, unforgettable moment in one's life. I thank God for granting me this chance, to be accepted among a lot of people who applied," the 31-year-old said.

Today, the pilgrims will move on to Mina, around five kilometers away from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat, where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) delivered his final sermon. Chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, the event is confined to those who have been fully vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, according to the hajj ministry.

The hajj ministry has said it is working on the "highest levels of health precautions" in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants. Pilgrims will be divided into groups of just 20 "to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection", ministry undersecretary Mohammad Al-Bijawi told official media.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has officially allowed businesses to remain open during the five daily Muslim prayers, a highly sensitive reform in a kingdom which is trying to shake off its austere image. "Stores and other commercial and economic activities will remain open throughout the working day and especially during (prayer) hours," the Federation of Saudi Chambers said in a statement late Friday.

Officially, the decision is part of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and aims to avoid "gatherings and long queues in front of closed stores during prayer hours". However, it comes after a 2019 decree that said businesses could stay open 24 hours a day for an unspecified fee. The move, which triggered confusion over whether it included the Islamic prayer times, was seen by some as a trial loosening of the rules.

Since then, some restaurants, supermarkets and other stores have stayed open, particularly in the capital Riyadh. Previously, after the predawn Fajr prayer they were obliged to close during the day's other four prayers, putting workers out of action for a total of about two hours in the Islamic world's only mandatory prayer-time shutdown. The new rules remove restrictions which members of the advisory Shura Council had said cost the Saudi economy tens of billions of riyals a year.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people. The hajj went ahead last year on the smallest scale in modern history. Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said up to 10,000 eventually took part.

But barring overseas pilgrims has caused deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, who typically save for years to take part. The hajj ministry received anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants about the tightly-controlled government lottery. "I am profoundly saddened," Pakistani clothes merchant Zafar Ullah, 64, told AFP after Saudi Arabia announced it was barring international pilgrims. "I also wanted to go for hajj last year. I was desperately hoping to make it this year and even had got myself vaccinated along with my wife."

Even among the chosen pilgrims, some complained of the high cost of the ritual. Government hajj packages start from around 12,100 riyals ($3,226), excluding a value added tax. Last year, worshippers said the Saudi government covered the expenses of all pilgrims, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation and healthcare. Worshippers were last year also given amenity kits including sterilized pebbles for the "stoning of Satan" ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a traditional seamless white hajj garment, made from a bacteria-resistant material.

But despite the cost, applicants say that to be among the chosen ones adds an aura of religious prestige to the pilgrimage. "My feelings cannot be described," said Rania Azraq, a 38-year-old Syrian housewife in Riyadh, who will attend the hajj without a male guardian, once mandatory for female pilgrims. "You just want to cry... and move closer to (God)." - AFP