This year’s hajj, which has been scaled back dramatically to include only around 1,000 Muslim pilgrims as Saudi Arabia battles a coronavirus surge, will begin on July 29, authorities said Monday.
Some 2.5 million people from all over the world usually participate in the ritual that takes place over several days, centered on the holy city of Mecca.
This year’s hajj will be held under strict hygiene protocols, with access limited to pilgrims under 65 years old and without any chronic illnesses.
The timing of the hajj is determined by the position of the moon, in accordance with the Islamic lunar calendar.
Last month, Saudi Arabia announced it would hold a “very limited” hajj, a decision fraught with political and economic peril as it battles a surge in coronavirus infections.
The decision to exclude pilgrims arriving from outside Saudi Arabia is a first in the kingdom’s modern history and has sparked disappointment among Muslims worldwide, although many accepted it was necessary due to the pandemic.
The pilgrims will be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Mecca and are required to quarantine at home after the ritual, according to health officials.
Saudi Arabia has seen an uptick in both confirmed infections and deaths from COVID-19 since easing movement restrictions in late May. It has yet to restore international air links.
The hajj – a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime could be a major source of contagion, as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.
The smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage was already suspended in March.
Together, they add $12 billion to the Saudi economy every year, according to government figures.
Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.
But a series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom’s management of the pilgrimage.