JAMARAT, Saudi Arabia, July 20 (Reuters) – Restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 during the Muslim haj in Saudi Arabia have also reduced the risk of a deadly crushing crowd that marred the symbolic stoning of the devil during pilgrimage in the past years, worshipers said Tuesday.
Before the pandemic, the annual rite of haj typically drew more than two million Muslim worshipers from around the world, with the crowds regularly leading to dangerous incidents, most recently a 2015 stampede that left hundreds dead.
But only a limited number of masked pilgrims threw pebbles at a wall in a symbolic waiver of the devil – historically the riskiest haj ceremony – during Tuesday’s Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).
For the second year in a row, Saudi Arabia has banned worshipers from abroad and only allowed 60,000 citizens and residents to participate in the haj.
“In the past it was too crowded and people jostled and jostled each other in Jamarat and some were injured,” said Mohammed Salehi, a Syrian living in Saudi Arabia, referring to the site of the stoning ceremony .
“Now the place is very spacious.”
Some pilgrims shaved their heads after throwing stones.
SHADOW OF PANDEMIC
Saudi Arabia builds its reputation on its guardianship of the holiest places of Islam in Mecca and Medina and on the peaceful organization of the haj, which has in the past been plagued by fires and riots as well as jostling.
Multi-billion dollar improvements to the haj’s government-funded infrastructure since 2015, including the construction of a three-story bridge in Jamarat to reduce congestion, have significantly reduced the frequency of these disasters.
And, in a speech marking Eid al-Adha, King Salman praised the measures taken by the kingdom to ensure a safe haj “in the shadow of this pandemic”, in particular by deploying technology to allow distancing physical.
With the coronavirus being the main concern, authorities have restricted access to pilgrims between the ages of 18 and 65, who have been fully vaccinated or have recovered from the virus and do not suffer from chronic illnesses.
This year, masked pilgrims dressed in white robes signifying a state of purity marched in small groups, each at their own pace and socially distanced.
“They had stones pre-packed for us,” Pakistani pilgrim Urooj Qasmi said. “I’m not afraid. Everything is very clean and well organized.”
Worshipers will return to Jamarat over the next two days before continuing to Mecca to pray at the Grand Mosque at the end of the haj, a unique duty for any able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.
Report by Reuters multimedia team in Mecca; Written by Ghaida Ghantous and Marwa Rashad; Editing by Joe Bavier
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