Saudi Arabia lays out restriction for hajj, introduces bottled holy water

Saudi Arabia's coronavirus infection count passed 200,000 on Monday, as the number of new cases continues to climb following the lifting of the curfew last month.

General view of Kaaba at empty Grand Mosque, as a preventive measure against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during the holy month of Ramadan, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia May 7, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS)
General view of Kaaba at empty Grand Mosque, as a preventive measure against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during the holy month of Ramadan, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia May 7, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia issued health protocols on Monday intended to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus among pilgrims attending this year's hajj.
The state news agency began by stating that pilgrims traveling to Mecca are banned from participating in gatherings or meetings between pilgrims.
In June, Saudi Arabia decided to limit the amount of domestic pilgrims visiting the holy al-Masjid al-Haram – otherwise known as the Great Mosque of Mecca – to 1,000 pilgrims total, after barring Muslims abroad from the rite for the first year in modern times.
The kingdom noted that the domestic constituency will consist of foreign residents of Saudi Arabia (70%) and Saudi citizens (30%), with priority given to the former.
The annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca normally draws a crowd averaging 2.5 million people, coming from all different walks of life and corners of the globe – as attendance is a religious duty, once in a lifetime, for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, and its organization of a peaceful hajj, which has been marred in the past by deadly stampedes, fires and riots.
Those selected to participate this year must test negative for COVID-19 beforehand, and should be first-time pilgrims between the ages of 20 and 50 without any underlying medical conditions that could be complicated by a coronavirus infection.
Pilgrims will also be required to wear masks and social distance themselves from other pilgrims, as well as self-quarantine before and after the hajj.
Saudi healthcare workers and security personnel who have recovered from the novel coronavirus will be given the rest of the slots, "in recognition of their role in caring for society at all stages of the pandemic," the statement said.
Additionally, pilgrims will be provided bottled holy water from Mecca's sacred Well of Zamzam, instead of having to fetch water directly from the well itself. They will also be required to bring their own prayer rugs.
The kingdom will be providing sterilized pebbles which pilgrims use for casting away evil, as a symbolic reenactment of Ibrahim's personal hajj, where he threw stones at three pillars to represent the temptation to disobey God and preserve Ishmael.
Pilgrims normally find and pick up these stones on their way to the holy sites of Mecca This year, however, the kingdom has bagged and sterilized stones ahead of time.
Touching or kissing the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, will be banned during the hajj this year, and a social distancing space of a meter and a half between each pilgrim will be imposed, during the rituals including mass prayers and while in the Kaaba circling area, a statement by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explained.
Also, access to holy hajj sites at Mona, Muzdalifah and Arafat will be limited to those with hajj permits starting Sunday, July 19 until August 2; wearing masks all the time will be mandatory for both pilgrims and organizers.
Every year, the 2.5 million pilgrims who attend hajj tend to crowd and push their way toward the Kaaba while performing their seven circuits around the holy cube-like structure, a ritual known as Tawaf. If possible, Muslims are to kiss or touch the holy structure.
The circle itself has not been broken for years, day in, day out, all night as well, even during Friday prayers. The last interruption – before the coronavirus outbreak – may have been in 1979, when rebels took over the mosque, leading to a long and bloody siege.
In March of this year, the open area surrounding the Kaaba – known as the Mataf, where Muslims perform the Tawaf – was briefly emptied by health authorities in order to sanitize the holy site during the peak months of the initial viral outbreak.
However, what would normally be standard practice for the world's largest annual gathering of Muslims during any other year, has the potential to turn into a coronavirus nightmare if left unchecked – hence the reasoning behind the kingdom's limiting participation this year.
Saudi Arabia's coronavirus infection count passed 200,000 on Monday, as the number of new cases continues to climb following its fully lifted curfew last month.
As of Wednesday, Saudi Arabia has reported 217,108 novel coronavirus cases since the first cases were identified in China in December 2019. Some 2,017 people have died since the onset of the outbreak, which totals six deaths for every 100,000 residents.

Reuters contributed to this report.