Pandemic casts shadow on hajj, Eid al-Adha
RIYADH –For the first time in the modern era, a greatly reduced number of Muslims will Wednesday embark on the annual hajj pilgrimage amidst efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
The holy city of Mecca, where more than two million believers usually converge for several days of rituals to retrace Prophet Mohammed’s last pilgrimage, will be open to no more than 10,000 people, with Muslims from abroad unable to attend the pilgrimage.
This year’s event, in fact, has been limited to about 1,000 pilgrims from within Saudi Arabia, 70% of whom will be foreign residents of the kingdom.
The remaining 30% will be drawn from Saudi healthcare workers and security personnel who have recovered from the coronavirus, as a gesture of thanks for their sacrifice.
Those chosen will receive supplies including special ihram garments, toiletries, and a prayer rug in a suitcase from the Saudi hajj ministry, as well as pre-arranged meals. They will be required to maintain social distancing.
The Saudi government has tightened access to the city and put in place strict health restrictions to prevent the spread of the disease. Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 260,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, with more than 2,700 deaths.
Some 2.5 million Muslims typically visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long pilgrimage, due to start on July 28. A once-in-a-lifetime duty for able-bodied Muslims who can afford the cost, it is usually extremely crowded.
Official figures show that the hajj and the year-round umrah pilgrimage earn the kingdom about $12 billion a year. Minimising the event will hurt government finances, already hit by falling oil prices and the pandemic.
The pilgrimage, however, will not be the only event hit by restrictions in the Muslim region this year as concerns are now growing about the possibility of the spread of the disease during Eid al-Adha festivities which will take place starting Friday.
Muslims slaughter sheep cows or goats to mark the holiday, which commemorates the account of the prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham, offering to sacrifice his son on God’s command. The meat is shared among family and friends and donated to the poor.
Last week, Oman announced that movement would be prohibited between all governorates from July 25 to August 8, a period that includes Eid al-Adha, in order to prevent the spread of the pandemic.
Algeria, the third most COVID-19 affected country in Africa with 27,357 cases and 1,155 deaths, has announced Sunday the renewal of confinement and curfew measures in 29 of its 48 provinces, for the next 15 days, which will include the Eid holidays.
Morocco, trying to stem a small spike in cases, is also banning all travel to and from some of its major cities, even though the North African country has remained less impacted than its European neighbours to the north.
As of Monday morning, a joint statement from the Moroccan Health and Interior Ministries quoted by MAP state news agency said that there is a “ban” on travel affecting the cities of Tangier, Tetouan, Fez, Meknes, Casablanca, Berrechid, Settat and the popular tourist destination of Marrakech.
The statement adds that exceptions to this include “people with urgent medical needs” and workers on specific missions who will need a travel permit issued by a local authority. Transportation of goods and commodities will continue normally.
The ministries said the decision was made because many Moroccans were not complying with measures encouraged by the governments to fight the spread of the coronavirus, such as social distancing, the wearing of masks and the use of disinfectants.
Morocco has confirmed 20,278 cases and a relatively low 313 deaths from the virus.
In Iran, President Hassan Rohani urged people on Saturday to observe health protocols and practice social distancing during upcoming Muslim festivities, as a health official said there had been a surge in coronavirus infections in a major holy city.
Most Iranians are Shia Muslims, who also mark their most significant mourning ceremonies of Ashura in September.
Let glorious festivities be held in mosques and religious centres by observing health protocols and social distancing, Rohani said in a televised speech.
“Let masks this year be part of the glorious mourning of Muharram, Rohani said, referring to Ashura, the 10th day of the lunar month of Muharram, when according to Islamic tradition Imam Hussein was killed in battle in 680.
One of the Eid al-Adha rituals is the sacrificial slaughter of sheep and giving to the poor.
Iranian health officials have urged the faithful to package the meat before distribution.
Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, speaking on state television, urged people not to visit the north-eastern holy city of Mashad, which he said has seen an increase of 300% in coronavirus cases over a one month period.
Millions typically visit Mashad’s Imam Reza shrine, which is Iran’s largest Shia religious complex.
Iran’s total tally of coronavirus cases hit 288,839 on Saturday, with 15,485 deaths, Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said on television.
The country gradually lifted its COVID-19 restrictions from mid-April, but they have been reimposed in most areas after a sharp spike in cases. On Saturday, officials in the capital Tehran extended restrictions by another week.
Across the Arab and Muslim world, health authorities fear a spike in pandemic infections as people crowd seasonal livestock markets to purchase sheep and cows for Eid Al-Adha sacrifice.