RIYADH: Saudi Arabia will gradually resume the year-round Umrah pilgrimage from October 4, the interior ministry said Tuesday, seven months after it was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The kingdom had suspended the Umrah in March and later scaled back the annual Hajj in a blow to millions of pilgrims around the world amid fears that the coronavirus could spread to holiest sites.
In the first stage, "6,000 citizens and residents within the kingdom will be allowed to perform the Umrah per day from October 4," the ministry said in a statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Visitors from outside the kingdom will be permitted from November 1, when Umrah's capacity will be raised to 20,000 pilgrims per day, the ministry added.
The ministry said Umrah would be allowed to resume at full "natural capacity" once the threat of the pandemic is eliminated.
The decision to resume Umrah was in response to the "aspirations of Muslims home and abroad" to perform the ritual and visit the holy sites, the ministry added.
The decision comes after the kingdom organised the smallest Hajj in modern history in late July, with only up to 10,000 people allowed to take part in total -- a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated last year.
Health authorities said no coronavirus cases were reported at the holy sites during the Hajj.
The pilgrims were also subjected to regular temperature checks and required to go into mandatory quarantine after the ritual.
King Salman, the kingdom's 84-year-old ruler, said holding the Hajj in the shadow of the pandemic required "double efforts" by Saudi authorities.
The Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages are a massive logistical challenge, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites, making them vulnerable to contagion.
The kingdom has sought to contain a spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 330,000 cases -- the highest in the Gulf -- and over 4,500 deaths.
But Saudi Arabia has also reported a high rate of recoveries, which surpassed 312,000 on Tuesday.
Last week, Saudi Arabia partially lifted its suspension on international flights, six months after travel curbs were imposed due to the pandemic.