Cairo: For Muslims, 2020 will be remembered as the year the annual Haj pilgrimage was reduced due to the global coronavirus epidemic.
In June, Saudi Arabia announced that the Haj would be held with a very limited number, limited to Saudis and non-Saudis of all nationalities who already resided in the kingdom.
Seventy percent of the pilgrims selected were expatriate residents while the remaining 30 percent were Saudi citizens. Expats who applied to attend Haj rituals had to meet certain health conditions to be eligible for pilgrims. They had to be free from chronic diseases and provide a negative PCR test result for the coronavirus. Additionally, applicants must not have previously performed the Haj, be between the ages of 20 and 50, and have signed a written consent to submit to quarantine before and after performing the Haj.
The other 30% were Saudi health professionals and security officers, who had recovered from COVID-19. They were chosen in recognition of their role in the fight against the virus, provided they meet the health criteria set for other pilgrims.
The Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam, has thus been considerably reduced to a few thousand. More than 2 million Muslims usually perform the Haj. Muslims are expected to perform it at least once in their lifetime if they have the means and are physically capable of it.
This year’s Haj began on July 29 amid the strictest sanitation measures for its rituals in memory. As part of the sanitary precautions, each pilgrim received a bag containing a protective mask, a shaving instrument, personal care tools, sterilized ritual stones, a toothpick, an umbrella and a prayer mat. The pilgrims were to observe the distance and use the sterilized pebbles to perform a symbolic ritual of stoning the devil.
Saudi authorities subsequently announced that no infectious cases, including the coronavirus, had been detected among the pilgrims.
Temporary stop of Umrah
Concerns over the spread of the virus also prompted Saudi authorities to suspend Umrah trips made each year by millions of Muslims around the world, most of whom could not afford the Haj fees.
In October, Saudi Arabia set in motion a plan for the gradual resumption of Umrah or minor pilgrimage after a suspension of about seven months. Likewise, strict sanitary rules have been set for the performance of Umrah.
The first phase of the plan, which began on October 4, allowed 6,000 Umrah pilgrims from within the kingdom per day to enter the Great Mosque of Mecca.
The second came into effect on October 18, allowing around 40,000 worshipers and 10,000 pilgrims per day to enter the Grand Mosque. Up to 20,000 Umrah pilgrims and 60,000 worshipers per day are allowed to pray at the mosque, according to the current third phase which began on November 1.
In March, many Muslim countries closed mosques to limit the spread of the virus, a move that prompted worshipers to pray at home. Mosque closures have encompassed the holy month of Ramadan, known for its intense worship and common prayers. Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, has suspended group prayers across the country, including the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.
Islamic authorities in different countries have urged Muslims to observe home worship, claiming that the closing of mosques is in accordance with Sharia law. “This decision underscores the supreme objectives of Islamic Sharia law, which underlines the importance of protecting human life from all evils,” Dar Al Iftaa, Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, said in a statement.
Almost three months later, mosques began to reopen as viral infections showed a downward trend in most Arab countries. However, worshipers aspiring to group prayers in mosques were required to adhere to health precautions, including wearing face masks, maintaining a two-meter distance, using personal prayer rugs, and performing. ritual ablutions at home. In Saudi Arabia, worshipers have their temperature checked before being allowed to enter mosques.
Celebrate the reopening of the mosque
Despite the restrictions, worshipers rejoiced to attend prayers at the mosque.
“The return of prayers in mosques is a day of Eid[feast]”Shaikh Adel Al Kalbani, an imam of the mosque in Riyadh, told Saudi Al Ekhbariya television in June.
Shaikh Adel has been an imam for 38 years.
“In the past, a mosque could be temporarily closed due to renovation or restoration work. At the time, we could go to another mosque. But not being able to go to all the mosques, including the Two Holy Mosques, it was really a difficult experience that I had never seen in my life, ”he added.