Saudi Arabia lifted coronavirus restrictions in Mecca on Sunday, allowing a small number of people to visit Islam’s holiest site as part of an umrah pilgrimage for the first time in several months.
The kingdom made the rare decision to suspend umrah in March in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Umrah is optional and may be undertaken at any time of year. It is known as the “lesser pilgrimage” in comparison to the larger and more famous hajj pilgrimage, which is obligatory for all able-bodied Muslims once in their lifetime. Despite its smaller scale, the umrah typically draws millions of international participants to Mecca.
The Saudi government on Sunday began to allow “a maximum of 6,000 pilgrims a day to enter the sprawling Grand Mosque in Mecca. Only Saudi citizens and residents will be permitted to enter the mosque during this first phase of reopening, and each person has up to three hours to complete the pilgrimage,” Reuters reported.
Mecca’s Grand Mosque houses the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure that Muslims pray toward five times a day. The Grand Mosque is now sterilized throughout the day per the Saudi government’s coronavirus prevention guidelines.
“Before visitors can enter the mosque to pray or perform the umrah, they have to apply and reserve a specific time and date through an online application to avoid crowding and maintain social distancing,” according to the report. As an added control, the Kingdom encourages participants to download a government-approved smartphone app for the event, which offers people suggested modes of transportation and meeting points.
Saudi state TV aired footage of the Grand Mosque on Sunday, appearing to show “fewer than 50 people circling the Kaaba at the same time and walking several meters apart.” During a typical umrah, thousands of pilgrims pack into the mosque shoulder-to-shoulder throughout the day.
The Kingdom will further relax coronavirus restrictions at the Grand Mosque starting October 18, when they will allow a maximum of 15,000 pilgrims and 40,000 people attending regular daily prayer to enter the structure over the course of a day. The participants will be limited to Saudi residents and citizens only. Their entry to the mosque will be controlled based on allocated times assigned through the official government app.
Umrah may open up to Muslim travelers from outside Saudi Arabia as early as November 1, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry. The government recently began easing some restrictions on international flights to the Kingdom for the first time since March.
Saudi Arabia held a significantly downsized hajj pilgrimage in July amid ongoing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. As with umrah, the government pre-selected pilgrims through an online portal. All participants were residents or citizens of Saudi Arabia. The annual event traditionally draws about two million people to the kingdom, generating tourist revenue “equivalent to about 2.7 percent of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product,” according to Bloomberg. As few as 1,000 people participated in this year’s scaled-down hajj, and all were tested for coronavirus and quarantined before being allowed to enter the Grand Mosque.
At press time on Monday, Saudi Arabia reported 336,766 cases and 4,898 deaths from the Chinese coronavirus.