By Suliman al Asad
Riyadh, Oct 31 (efe-epa).- Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram (‘Sacred Mosque’) is preparing to welcome foreign pilgrims for the lesser Umrah pilgrimage which starts on Sunday as part of a gradual plan to resume religious rites that were suspended for seven months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The plan to reopen to foreigners began on 4 October, when only a limited number of residents within the kingdom were allowed to take part in the minor pilgrimage under strict health protocols, with the numbers steadily increasing as the weeks have passed.
With a new phase in place, the Saudi government announced that 20,000 people would be allowed to perform the lesser pilgrimage and 40,000 will be permitted to pray at the mosque each day, far fewer than its 278,000 people capacity, as of Sunday.
Applicants have to register in the Eitamarna mobile app that Saudi authorities launched earlier this month for Muslims wanting to either pray at the mosque or to perform the Umrah in order to control the numbers.
Only people between 18 and 50 years old are allowed to apply for Umrah, and they must produce a negative PCR test and wear a mask, among other restrictions the Saudi authorities have announced.
Earlier this month, the deputy minister of pilgrimage, Abdul-Fattah Mashat, said that the government will assess which countries will be allowed to enter Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage, in accordance with the “internal policy of some countries on their willingness to open their borders”.
The return of foreign pilgrims, despite being in reduced numbers, represents good news for the people in the sector as the pilgrimage to Mecca generates $12 billion in revenue a year.
The public relations manager of the al-Zwar, a pilgrimage services company, Abdul-Aziz al-Qady, told Efe that the agency expects to welcome 3,000 foreigners a week. The company must provide them with food and accommodation according to the protocol.
The company must also transfer the faithful “in limited batches” to the Sacred Mosque, where each group can only stay for three hours, accompanied by a health worker at all times, according to al-Qady.
Manhal al Saiedy, director of coordination and monitoring of the al-Maqam Swiss hotel near the Sacred Mosque, told Efe that the pilgrims should be confined for three days prior to the rituals, in compliance with the government’s directives.
The hotels must allocate 10 percent of their capacity to isolating “suspicious” cases, he added.
Reducing the number of pilgrims as part of the measures will make this year’s pilgrimages “strange, and even depressing,” he said.
“It is not usual to walk through the Sacred Mosque without seeing crowds,” he said. EFE-EPA