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Saudi Arabia to ease COVID restrictions, allow 1 million hajj pilgrims

Normally one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, it had been scaled down to several thousand in recent years; only vaccinated people under 65 allowed to attend

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, durning the hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on August 13, 2019. (Amr Nabil/AP)
Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, durning the hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on August 13, 2019. (Amr Nabil/AP)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia said Saturday it will permit one million Muslims from inside and outside the country to participate in this year’s hajj, a sharp uptick after pandemic restrictions forced two years of drastically pared-down pilgrimages.

The hajj ministry “has authorized one million pilgrims, both foreign and domestic, to perform the hajj this year,” it said in a statement.

One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives. Usually, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, about 2.5 million people took part in 2019.

But after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Saudi authorities allowed only 1,000 pilgrims to participate.

The following year, they upped the total to 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents chosen through a lottery.

This year’s hajj, which will take place in July, will be limited to vaccinated pilgrims under age 65, Saturday’s announcement said.

Those coming from outside Saudi Arabia will be required to submit a negative Covid-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.

The government wants to promote pilgrims’ safety “while ensuring that the maximum number of Muslims worldwide can perform the hajj,” Saturday’s statement said.

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, as they wear masks and keep social distancing, a day before the annual hajj pilgrimage, July 17, 2021 (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The hajj consists of a series of religious rites that are completed over five days in Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, and surrounding areas of western Saudi Arabia.

Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, as the custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites is the most powerful source of their political legitimacy.

Before the pandemic, Muslim pilgrimages were key revenue earners for the kingdom, bringing in some $12 billion annually.

The restrictions in 2020 and 2021 stoked resentment among Muslims abroad who were barred.

The kingdom of approximately 34 million people has so far recorded more than 751,000 coronavirus cases, including 9,055 deaths, according to health ministry data.

In early March it announced the lifting of most COVID restrictions including social distancing in public spaces and quarantine for vaccinated arrivals, moves that were expected to facilitate the arrival of Muslim pilgrims.

The decision included suspending “social distancing measures in all open and closed places” including mosques, while masks are now only required in closed spaces.

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