13 Jun 2021

Pilgrimage to Mecca restricted for second year in a row

9:50 am on 13 June 2021

Saudi Arabia has restricted the annual haj pilgrimage to its own citizens and residents for the second year running in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

 In this file photo taken on April 24, 2020, sanitation workers disinfect the area around the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, on the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, amid unprecedented bans on family gatherings and mass prayers due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Photo: AFP

Only people aged between 18 and 65 who have been vaccinated or immunised against the virus, and are free of chronic diseases, will be able to take part, the ministry that manages the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca said in a statement carried by the state Saudi Press Agency.

It also set a maximum of 60,000 participants.

"The decision (was made) to guarantee the safety of haj amid uncertainty over the coronavirus," the kingdom's health minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said in a televised press conference.

"Despite the availability of vaccine, there is uncertainty over the virus and some countries still record high numbers of Covid cases. The other challenge is the different variants of the virus, hence came the decision to restrict haj," al-Rabiah said.

The minister said only approved Covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson will be valid for the haj.

Last year's restricted pilgrimage was dramatically different, the BBC reported.

"The radically pared-down pilgrimage provided a startling contrast as concentric circles of socially distanced worshippers performed the seven circuits around the black stone in the Kaaba," the BBC's Sebastian Usher reported.

"This year, once again, it won't be permitted to touch the most sacred site in Islam."

Sources told Reuters in May a plan was being considered to bar overseas pilgrims from performing haj, a once in a lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

Before the pandemic enforced social distancing globally, some 2.5 million pilgrims used to visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long haj, and the lesser, year-round umrah pilgrimage, which together earned the kingdom about $US12 billion ($NZ16b) a year, according to official data.

- Reuters/BBC

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