Pilgrims pray on Mount Arafat, the highest point of the Hajj

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims prayed Friday on Mount Arafat, Saudi Arabia, the culmination of the hajj which brings together under oppressive heat the largest number of pilgrims since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

By bus or on foot and singing “God, I’m here”the faithful converged from the Mina Valley towards the Jabal al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy), where the Prophet Muhammad traditionally delivered his farewell sermon to the Muslims who accompanied him on the pilgrimage at the end of his life.

Thousands then gathered at the nearby Namirah Mosque for midday prayers.

“In 2020, I thought I would never do hajj. It seemed like the end of the world to me. But I am here today. God is big“, rejoices Bassam Mohammed, an Egyptian pilgrim.

During the two years of the pandemic, the Saudi authorities only authorized a few thousand inhabitants of the kingdom to make the pilgrimage, compared to 2.5 million Muslims around the world in 2019.

This year, a million faithful, including 850,000 foreigners drawn by lot, were welcomed to Mecca and Medina, the first holy places of Islam in the west of the kingdom, on condition of being vaccinated and presenting a test. PCR negative.

Masks, disinfectants

The pilgrimage is taking place as cases of Covid-19 contamination are skyrocketing around the world. And the gathering of a million people is not without risks.

Saudi authorities have announced the abandonment of the wearing of masks in most closed spaces, but imposed it in the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

Therefore, a large number of pilgrims do not wear masks during rituals.

In the Mina Valley, where they spent the night in air-conditioned tents, worshipers were handed bags with masks and disinfectant gel.

According to the Ministry of Health on Thursday evening, no cases of coronavirus were detected among the pilgrims.

“The status of pilgrims is reassuring. No case of contamination (…) has been reported”he said without specifying whether tests were regularly carried out.

The hajj, one of the largest annual religious gatherings in the world, is one of the five pillars of Islam and should be undertaken by all Muslims who can afford it at least once in their lifetime.

“I’m so happy to be here, like everyone else. This is the biggest hajj since Covid-19,” said Saad Farhat Khalil, a 49-year-old Egyptian pilgrim.

Stoning of Satan

Another challenge during the pilgrimage; oppressive heat with temperatures approaching 44 degrees Celsius.

Hats forbidden for men during the hajj, pilgrims try to protect themselves from the sun with umbrellas, prayer mats, even small buckets filled with water.

Women are forced to cover their heads with scarves.

“We can tolerate (the heat). We are here for the hajj. The more we tolerate, the more valuable our pilgrimage is”says Laila, a 64-year-old Iraqi.

As a precautionary measure, the authorities reserved hundreds of hospital beds and installed “a large number of misting fans”.

And the National Meteorological Center sends warning messages to pilgrims on their mobile phones, calling on them not to expose themselves during the hottest hours of the day.

After sunset, the pilgrims will go to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they will sleep under the stars, before performing the ritual of stoning the steles representing Satan in Mina on Saturday, and to celebrate the feast of the Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha.

The stone stoning ritual turned tragic in 2015 with a gigantic stampede that killed some 2,300 people.

Pilgrims will then return to the Grand Mosque in Mecca to perform a final ‘tawaf’ around the Kaaba, the cubic structure draped in gold-embroidered black cloth to which all Muslims turn to pray.

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