Saudi Arabia resumes Umrah pilgrimage after almost seven months

Riyadh: The Saudi Arabian authorities resumed on late Saturday the Umrah pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah, the kingdom’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said.

Riyadh suspended the pilgrimage for foreign and domestic Muslims in March, after Saudi Arabia reported its first COVID-19 case.

“The resumption of the Umrah pilgrimage will take place in four stages, during the first stage it will resume from October 4 only by 30 per cent, the second stage will begin on October 18 with a 75 per cent participation of willing pilgrims, and from November 1, Umrah will gradually begin to accept the participation of all interested pilgrims from within the country and from abroad, 100 per cent conducting of Umrah, as it was before, depends on when the end of the pandemic is announced or when the danger disappears,” the ministry told the Saudi Press Agency.

Over 108,000 foreign and local pilgrims, who are in the country, have now received permission to take part in Umrah.

Protective measures, such as disinfection and social distancing, will be taken during the pilgrimage.

A very small, limited number of people donning the white terrycloth garment symbolic of the Muslim pilgrimage circled Islam’s holiest site in Mecca on Sunday after Saudi Arabia lifted coronavirus restrictions that had been in place for months.

The kingdom had taken the rare step of suspending the smaller “umrah” pilgrimage that draws millions year-round from across the world in early March as the coronavirus morphed into a global pandemic and prompted countries to impose lockdowns and curfews to slow down transmission.

But as nations begin to ease those restrictions, the Saudi government on Sunday started allowing a maximum of 6,000 pilgrims a day to enter the sprawling Grand Mosque in Makkah.

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Only Saudi citizens and residents will be permitted to enter the mosque during this first phase of reopening, and each person has up to three hours to complete the pilgrimage.

The Grand Mosque, which is being sterilized and cleaned multiple times a day, houses the cube-shaped Kaaba that observant Muslims pray toward five times a day.

Before visitors can enter the mosque to pray or perform the umrah, they have to apply and reserve a specific time and date through an online application to avoid crowding and maintain social distancing. Visitors can also select via the app their means of transportation and meeting points.

State TV showed on Sunday what appeared to be fewer than 50 people circling the Kaaba at the same time and walking several metres (feet) apart. Typically, the mosque would be packed with worshippers from around the world crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at all times of the day and night.

The second phase for loosening restrictions at the Grand Mosque comes into effect on October 18, allowing a maximum of 15,000 pilgrims and 40,000 for prayer from among residents and citizens based on allocated times via the app.

Muslim travellers from outside Saudi Arabia could be allowed to perform the umrah pilgrimage as early as November 1, the Interior Ministry has said. Saudi Arabia recently began easing some restrictions on international flights for the first time since March.

The kingdom held a dramatically downsized, symbolic Hajj pilgrimage in July due to concerns that it could easily have become a global super-spreader event for the virus. Pilgrims were selected after applying through an online portal and all were residents or citizens of Saudi Arabia.

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Rather than the more than two million pilgrims the kingdom hosts for the annual event, as little as 10,000 took part after being tested for the virus and quarantined.

Makkah’s Grand Mosque on Sunday opened its doors to the first group of pilgrims performing Umrah after almost seven months of Covid-19 restrictions.

The pilgrims entered the mosque at 6 a.m. after applying through Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah’s Eatmarna app, reports Arab News.

The Kingdom also halted international flights and implemented a lockdown.

To accommodate a quota of 6,000 pilgrims per day, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has prepared five meeting points, including the Al-Gaza, Ajyad and Al-Shasha sites, where pilgrims will meet and join health professionals on buses to the Grand Mosque.

Thermal cameras will be placed at the entrances and inside halls of the Grand Mosque to monitor body temperature spikes and issue alerts if necessary.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 employees have been trained to monitor the rituals of Umrah in the Grand Mosque.

The mosque will be cleaned 10 times a day between each group’s presence, the Arab News report said.

Escalators leading to the top floors have also been equipped with cleaning devices, while hand-washing devices have been placed at the mosque’s entrances.

Despite taking early and sweeping measures to contain the virus, Saudi Arabia has recorded nearly 336,000 cases, including 4,850 deaths, as of Sunday.

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