Saudi Arabia has announced this year’s hajj pilgrimage will be limited to no more than 60,000 people, all from within the kingdom, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The kingdom ran a severely pared-down pilgrimage last year because of the virus, but still allowed a small number of the faithful to take part in the annual ceremony.
A statement on the state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted the kingdom’s Hajj and Umrah Ministry making the announcement. It said this year’s event, which will begin in mid-July, will be limited to people aged 18 to 65 who have been vaccinated.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is honoured to host pilgrims every year, confirms that this arrangement comes out of its constant concern for the health, safety and security of pilgrims as well as the safety of their countries,” the statement said.
Last year, as few as 1,000 people already residing in Saudi Arabia were selected to take part in the hajj. Two-thirds were foreign residents from among the 160 nationalities that would have normally been represented, and a third were Saudi security personnel and medical staff.
Each year, up to two million Muslims perform the hajj, a physically demanding and often costly pilgrimage that draws the faithful from around the world.
The hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims to perform once in their lifetime, is seen as a chance to wipe clean past sins and bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims.
The kingdom’s Al Saud ruling family stakes its legitimacy in this oil-rich nation on overseeing and protecting the hajj sites, and ensuring the event happens has been a priority for them.
Disease outbreaks have always been a concern surrounding the hajj. Cholera killed an estimated 20,000 in 1821, and another 15,000 in 1865 before spreading worldwide.
More recently, Saudi Arabia faced danger from a different coronavirus, one that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, or Mers. The kingdom increased public health measures during the hajj in 2012 and 2013, urging the sick and elderly not to take part.
In recent years, Saudi officials also banned pilgrims coming from countries affected by the Ebola virus.
Saudi Arabia – home to more than 30 million people – closed its borders for months to try to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Since the start of the pandemic, the kingdom has reported more than 462,000 cases of the virus with 7,500 deaths. It has administered 15.4 million doses of coronavirus vaccines, according to the World Health Organisation.