ARAFAT: Thousands of face-masked pilgrims performing Hajj pilgrimage gathered on Mount Arafat on Monday to atone for their sins, expressing hopes for peace and an end to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Saudi Arabia has barred worshippers from abroad for a second year running and has restricted entry from within the kingdom under special conditions to guard against the coronavirus and its new variants.
Only 60,000 Saudi citizens and residents, aged 18 to 65, who have been fully vaccinated or recovered from the virus and do not suffer from chronic diseases, were selected for the rite, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.
"It is an indescribable feeling that I got selected among millions of people to attend the Hajj. I pray for God to put an end to these hard times the whole world has gone through under the coronavirus," said Um Ahmed, a Palestinian pilgrim who lives in the Saudi capital Riyadh and who said she lost four family members to the virus.
In previous years, more than two million pilgrims used to cover Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat, sitting close to each other in the scorching heat of the desert city of Mecca, carrying umbrellas and fans to keep cool as temperatures rose towards 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
This year pilgrims, dressed in white robes signifying a state of purity, had to observe social distancing and wear face masks on Mount Arafat, the hill where Islam holds God tested Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail. Mount Arafat is also where holy Prophet (PBUH) gave his last sermon.
"The first prayer is to ask God to lift this pandemic, this curse and this grief for all humanity and for Muslims, so in the next years they are able to attend haj and for millions to refill these holy sites," said Maher Baroody, a Syrian pilgrim.-Reuters
AFP adds: Pilgrims ascended Saudi Arabia's Mount Arafat in the high point of this year's Hajj, being held in downsized form and under coronavirus restrictions for the second year running.
The mask-clad faithful, who had spent the night at camps in the Valley of Mina, converged on Mount Arafat.
Being one of the lucky few "gives you a feeling that our God is forgiving and has chosen us to be in this place," said Selma Mohamed Hegazi, a 45-year-old Egyptian.
"God willing, our prayers will be accepted," she told AFP as she stood among the other emotional pilgrims, wearing the ihram, the traditional seamless white garment worn during the Hajj.
"My whole body is shivering."
After noon prayers, the worshippers, carrying water bottles and umbrellas, made their way up the 70-metre (230-foot) high hill for hours of prayers and Koran recitals to atone for their sins.
Misting devices installed by the authorities helped relieve the oppressive conditions as the pilgrims performed the rites in the glare of the Gulf summer.
After sunset they will head to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they will sleep under the stars before performing the symbolic "stoning of the devil".
The scene was dramatically different to past pilgrimages, which have drawn up to 2.5 million people, and this year the mountain was free of the huge crowds that descend on it in normal years.
A member of the Council of senior scholars, Bandar Balila, who delivered the sermon at the Namira Mosque, praised the Saudi government's measures which he said had prevented the hajj from being "a site for the spread of disease and a focus of the epidemic".
Authorities were intent on staging the ritual "in a healthy manner that meets the requirements of disease prevention and social distancing," he said in the sermon that was translated into 10 languages for the benefit of the multi-national pilgrims.
Worshippers described a sense of tranquillity descending on the mountain, also known as the "Mount of Mercy".
"To be one of only 60,000 doing Hajj... I feel like I am part of a (privileged) group that was able to reach this place," said Baref Siraj, a 58-year-old Saudi national.
Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, with the event confined to fully vaccinated adults aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses.
Authorities are seeking to repeat last year's successful event which took place on the smallest scale in modern history with just 10,000 participants, but which saw no virus outbreak.
Saudi health authorities said Sunday that not a single Covid case had been reported amongst the pilgrims this year so far.
The kingdom has recorded more than 509,000 coronavirus infections to date, including over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.
The hajj, which typically packs large crowds into congested religious sites, could have been a super-spreader event for the virus.
But Saudi Arabia has said it is deploying the "highest levels of health precautions" in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
Pilgrims are being divided into groups of just 20 to restrict potential exposure, and a "smart Hajj card" has been introduced to allow contact-free access to camps, hotels and the buses to ferry pilgrims around religious sites.
Black-and-white robots have been deployed to dispense bottles of sacred water from the Zamzam spring in Mecca's Grand Mosque, built around the holy Kaaba, the black cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.
Ibrahim Siam, a 64-year-old Egyptian pilgrim who comes from Dammam in the east of the country, said that high-tech procedures introduced to manage the hajj "have made things a lot easier".