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Coronavirus

COVID-19 empties Saudi holy city of Muslim pilgrims

Health Ministry says no cases confirmed during drastically scaled down Hajj

At left, pilgrims walk around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on July 31. At right, pilgrims circle the Kaaba in 2019. (Source photos by Saudi Ministry of Media/AP and AP)

DUBAI/CAIRO -- As the Hajj pilgrimage ended this year on Sunday, the Saudi holy city of Mecca hosted only 1,000 visitors, according to the government. Normally the annual Islamic pilgrimage attracts around 2.5 million worshippers from around the world.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. All Muslims are required to visit Mecca at least once in their lifetimes. To accommodate the world's roughly 2 billion Muslims, the Saudi government typically issues Hajj visas according to national quotas. A lottery is used to select who makes the pilgrimage.

This year's Hajj took place from July 28 to Aug. 2. Due to the pandemic, only people residing in Saudi Arabia were allowed to participate.

Of those, Muslims between the ages of 20 and 50 representing 160 countries were selected to take part. Strict measures, including rigorous testing, quarantines and social distancing, were put in place to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus. Gathering spots, such as the Grand Mosque in Mecca, were cleaned 10 times a day.

Despite the scorching summer heat, pilgrims wore masks throughout the five-day Hajj and kept their distance from other pilgrims during the ritual of circling the Kaaba.

Muslims wearing masks circle the Kaaba following the Saudi government's social distancing guidelines. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, Saudi Arabia)

Pilgrims were given wristbands to track their movements and required to quarantine afterward. They were also given prepackaged meals to eat alone in their hotel rooms. Unlike in previous years, pilgrims were not allowed to touch the Kaaba.

As a result, the Ministry of Health says no coronavirus cases were detected among the visitors. Muhammad Al-Abd Al-Aali, the spokesman, told Nikkei that the ministry "has acquired a cumulative experience that provides the Saudi health care system with the readiness to face any recurrent wave of the virus."

Abdul- Rahman Al Zahrani, a 40-year-old Uber driver and Saudi national who attended the Hajj this year said: "Although I am very happy I participated in Hajj this year -- we shared prayer, supplication and the ritual pilgrimage -- I feel sad because millions of Muslims wanted to be among us in the holy city of Mecca."

"I wanted to use my life savings to attend the Hajj with my wife this year," said Mohammed Safwat, a 65-year-old retired Egyptian. "However, we were disqualified from the Hajj selection process, and I feel sad and disappointed that we had to cancel our pilgrimage."

Mecca, which usually receives millions of religious pilgrims, is practically deserted and has suffered economically. Hotels, travel agents, restaurants, gift shops and transportation companies have all been badly hit by the sharp drop in visitors due to the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia has taken a number of steps to revive Mecca's economy. Joint committees have been formed by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah and other relevant authorities to develop initiatives to support the tourism sector.

Coronavirus has changed the way Muslims practice their religion. For example, mass prayers and Friday sermons were suspended during the peak of the pandemic. In some countries, the imam who calls worshippers to prayers asked people to pray from home instead.

Additional reporting by Saber Rabie in Cairo.

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