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4024hr
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An Indian family-of-five burst into tears of joy after being chosen for this weekend’s downsized Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, but hundreds of thousands of rejected applicants were left disappointed.

Up to 60,000 Muslims residing in Saudi Arabia are allowed to take part in this year’s Hajj.

Through an online vetting system, they were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants — all citizens or residents of the kingdom.

Among the chosen ones was Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil contractor based in the eastern city of Dammam, who was picked for the ritual along with his wife and three adult children.

“We are overjoyed,” said Ameen, who only gave his first name.

“So many of our friends and relatives were rejected,” he told AFP in Riyadh.

The five-day pilgrimage, which starts from Saturday, is confined to residents of the kingdom who have been fully vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, the Haj ministry said.

The chosen pilgrims come from 150 countries, with a preference given to those performing the ritual for the first time, it added.

“I feel like I won a lottery,” Egyptian pharmacist Mohammed El Eter said after being selected.

“This is a special, unforgettable moment in one’s life. I thank God for granting me this chance, to be accepted among a lot of people who applied,” the 31-year-old told AFP.

The Haj ministry also received anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants about the tightly-controlled government lottery.

“We are still anxiously waiting to be accepted, as though we’re facing an exam,” wrote one Twitter user.

In a hugely sensitive decision last year, Saudi authorities hosted the smallest Hajj in modern history to prevent it from becoming a super-spreader event for the deadly virus.

Authorities initially said only 1,000 pilgrims were allowed last year, but local media said up to 10,000 took part.

Though a higher number of pilgrims were chosen this year, it is still a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated in 2019 from around the world.

“I am profoundly saddened,” Pakistani clothes merchant Zafar Ullah, 64, told AFP after Saudi Arabia announced it was barring international pilgrims.

Even among the chosen pilgrims, some complained of the high cost of the ritual. Government Haj packages start from around 12,100 riyals ($3,226), excluding a value added tax.

Last year, worshippers said the Saudi government covered the expenses of all pilgrims, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation and health care.

But despite the cost, applicants say that to be among the chosen ones adds an aura of religious prestige to the pilgrimage.—AFP

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