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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Explained: Here is how and why Hajj 2020 is different

This is the first time since it began ruling Mecca about a century ago that Saudi Arabia has had to stop Muslim pilgrims from entering the country for the annual pilgrimage.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: August 1, 2020 11:32:08 am
Hajj pilgrimage, Hajj pilgrimage social distancing, Hajj pilgrimage 2020, Hajj pilgrimage news, Indian Express Hundreds of Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, as they observe social distancing to protect themselves against the coronavirus, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)

The Hajj pilgrimage – among the five pillars of the Islamic faith – is markedly different this year. After its start on Tuesday, few pilgrims were seen circling the Kaaba while following social distancing, as opposed to lakhs who occupy the place every year.

Because of the pandemic, the number of attending devotees has been drastically scaled down, from an estimated 25 lakh in 2019 to around 1,000 locals and resident foreigners this year. This is the first time since it began ruling Mecca about a century ago that Saudi Arabia has had to stop Muslim pilgrims from entering the country for the annual pilgrimage.

To keep Covid-19 infections at a minimum, the Saudi government has also enforced strict social distancing rules and employed contact tracing technology. It is covering all travel, accommodation, food, and healthcare expenses of the admitted pilgrims this year.

The country has so far recorded over 2.7 lakh Covid-19 infections, and more than 2,800 deaths.

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Hajj pilgrimage, Hajj pilgrimage social distancing, Hajj pilgrimage 2020, Hajj pilgrimage news, Indian Express A limited numbers of pilgrims pray in the first rituals of the hajj, as they keep social distancing to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Saudi Media Ministry via AP)

Why the Hajj pilgrimage is important for Muslims

The Hajj is a pillar of Islam, required of all Muslims once in a lifetime. It is a physically demanding journey that Muslims believe offers a chance to wipe clean past sins and start anew before God.

During the pilgrimage, Muslims following a route once walked by Prophet Muhammad, and also follow rites related to the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail (Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible).

Despite the physical challenges, many people rely on canes or crutches and insist on walking the routes. Those who cannot afford the hajj are sometimes financed by charities or community leaders. Others save their entire lives to make the journey.

Over 2 lakh from India had registered to travel for Hajj in 2020, and the Ministry of Minority Affairs in June announced a full refund of all money deposited by applicants.

Read | Curtailed annual haj leaves many disappointed in Mumbai, say accepted applicants should be allowed next year

Hajj pilgrimage, Hajj pilgrimage social distancing, Hajj pilgrimage 2020, Hajj pilgrimage news, Indian Express Pilgrims are seen practicing social distancing. (Saudi Press Agency/Handout via Reuters)

Who are the pilgrims for Hajj 2020?

The attendees have been selected through an online process, two-thirds being foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia, and the remaining one-third locals. Applicants had to be between 20 to 50 years of age, having no symptoms of the virus or terminal illnesses. Those who had not made the pilgrimage before were preferred.

In Mecca, pilgrims had to go through four days of quarantine in hotels, after previously completing quarantine in their homes. According to an AP report, they will be moving in small groups of 20 to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the virus. At the Grand Mosque, they must maintain 1.5 meters of space between each other.

For contact tracing, Saudi authorities have given pilgrims wristbands that connect to their phones, thus being able to monitor their movement. After the end of the pilgrimage on Sunday, attendees will again be quarantined for a week.

Hajj pilgrimage, Hajj pilgrimage social distancing, Hajj pilgrimage 2020, Hajj pilgrimage news, Indian Express Workers disinfect the ground outside the Grand Mosque, over fears of the new coronavirus, at the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Monday, July 27, 2020. (AP Photo)

As part of the measures, pilgrims will be eating prepackaged meals alone in their hotel rooms, and consume holy water from the Zamzam well that has been packaged in plastic bottles. They have also been given their own prayer rugs, and are provided special attire laced with silver nano technology that Saudi authorities say helps kill bacteria and makes clothes water resistant, the AP report said.

The Stoning of the Devil ceremony will also be different. While pilgrims usually pick pebbles along Hajj routes to throw at pillars symbolising the devil, this year they will get sterilised pebbles that have been bagged beforehand.

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