Pilgrims in masks arrive at Mecca for another scaled-down Hajj due to Covid

Not a single case of coronavirus has been detected in Mecca, amid a massively-scaled down version of the Hajj pilgrimage.

More than 40 times fewer people than normal are visiting the holy city for the Islamic event, which has been heavily disrupted by Covid for the second year running.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia are only allowing 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents to take part, far from the vast crowds of some 2.5 million pilgrims who descend on Mecca in normal times.

However, that is significantly more than last year, when 1,000 – 10,000 people took part.

Health authorities confirmed at a briefing late on Sunday – day two of the pilgrimage – that no cases had yet been reported among those attending in 2021.

Groups of the faithful performed the ‘tawaf’ at Mecca’s Grand Mosque on Saturday, when they circled the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth, which Muslims around the world pray towards.

They then made their way to Mina, where they spent the night.

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Known as the ‘city of tents’, the neighbourhood sits is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims three miles from the Grand Mosque.

Pilgrims were brought there on Sunday in buses which were only half-filled to respect social distancing rules, and authorities provided 3,000 electric cars to transport the elderly and those with limited mobility.

Various social distancing measures are in place for the event, including security guards checking to make sure there is no overcrowding.

Anyone found to be infected at the event will be taken to isolation facilities.

At the high point of the Hajj on Monday, worshippers will climb Mount Arafat, the site where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his final sermon.

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Worshippers will pray and recite the Koran there for several hours, then, after descending the following day, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic ‘stoning of the devil’.

The Hajj, usually one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.

This year’s pilgrimage is larger than the one staged in 2020 – the smallest in modern history – but is drastically smaller than in normal times.

Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, with the event confined to fully vaccinated adults aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses.

That has led to resentment among Muslims abroad, who have again been barred.

Saddaf Ghafour, a 40-year-old Pakistani travelling with her friend, was among the women who is making the pilgrimage – and did so without a male ‘guardian’ – a recently scrapped requirement.

She branded the experience ‘a privilege’.

Meanwhile, the sons of a prominent Saudi guide who died of Covid after three decades serving pilgrims have taken up his role in tribute.

Talaat Tounsi came from one of the six families in Mecca who traditionally serve as ‘mutawaf’ – guides who help foreign pilgrims perform the rites of Hajj and the year-round umrah.

He died in August 2020 at the age of 52, leaving behind six sons and two daughters, and told his children to carry on his work, with the vocation traditionally passed down from generation to generation,

His son Majed, a 32-year-old doctor who became emotional while speaking about his Dad, said: ‘We all decided to work this year for the first time in the service of pilgrims to honour the memory of our father.’

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 509,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths.

Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of more than 34 million people.

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