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One million Muslim pilgrims were converging on Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Makkah on Wednesday for the largest hajj since the coronavirus pandemic severely curtailed access to one of Islam’s five pillars. Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow some 850,000 Muslims from abroad to make the annual pilgrimage, which begins on Thursday, marks a major step toward normalcy after two years of a drastically scaled-down hajj restricted to Saudi residents. The 1 million foreign and domestic pilgrims participating is still far less than the 2.5 million Muslims who traveled in 2019 for the pilgrimage, typically one of the world’s largest gatherings.
Those performing the ritual this year must be under 65, vaccinated against the coronavirus and have tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of travel. The pilgrims are chosen from millions of applicants through an online lottery system. Saudi officials inspected the holy site on Wednesday and stressed their “readiness” to receive pilgrims with the goal of “maintaining public health.”
After the coronavirus struck in 2020, Saudi authorities allowed just 1,000 pilgrims already residing in the kingdom to attend, prompting historians to compare the disruption to the site’s storming by religious extremists and dramatic closure in 1979. Last year, the hajj was similarly restricted to 60,000 fully vaccinated Muslims living in Saudi Arabia. The unprecedented curbs sent shock waves throughout the Muslim world, devastating many believers who had spent years saving up for the religious rite. (AP)