This year's pilgrimage would be open for nationals and residents of the kingdom. File photo
Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday it will allow 60,000 residents vaccinated against COVID-19 to perform this year's Hajj, but Muslims from abroad will be barred for a second straight year.
This year it would be "open for nationals and residents of the kingdom, limited to 60,000 pilgrims," the Hajj Ministry said, quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA). The pilgrimage, scheduled to be held in July, would be limited to those who have been vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, it said.
"The decision (was made) to guarantee the safety of Hajj amid uncertainty over the coronavirus," the kingdom's Health Minister Tawfiq Al Rabiah said in a televised press conference carried by SPA.
"Despite the availability of vaccine, there is uncertainty over the virus and some countries still record high numbers of COVID cases, the other challenge is the different variants of the virus, hence came the decision to restrict Hajj," Rabiah said.
"In light of what the whole world is witnessing with the coronavirus pandemic... and the emergence of new variants, the relevant authorities have continued to monitor the global health situation," the health ministry said.
"Considering the large crowds that perform hajj, spending long periods of time in multiple and specific places... requires the highest levels of health precautions."
Saudi Arabia said those wishing to perform the Hajj would have to apply online, without specifying how many foreign residents would be among the 60,000 pilgrims.
In 2020, foreigners were 70 per cent of the pilgrims, while Saudis made up the rest. The kingdom said later that it had informed other countries of the decision not to allow pilgrims from abroad.
"There was great understanding," its Deputy Hajj Minister, Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat, told a news conference. "Arrangements for this were based on the kingdom's keenness on the pilgrims' health and the safety of their countries."
Riyadh is accelerating a nationwide vaccination drive as it moves to revive tourism and host sports and entertainment events, pandemic-hit sectors that are a bedrock of the "Vision 2030" programme to diversify its oil-reliant economy.
It has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines.
The kingdom has also said that from Aug.1, vaccinations would be mandatory to enter government and private establishments, including education institutions and entertainment venues, as well as to use public transport.
In a relaxation of coronavirus curbs last October, Saudi Arabia opened the Grand Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months and partially resumed the all-year-round Umrah pilgrimage.
The limit on Umrah pilgrims is 20,000 a day, with a total of 60,000 worshippers allowed to perform daily prayers at the mosque. Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 460,000 coronavirus infections, including 7,537 deaths.
It more than 15 million coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.
Agence France-Presse / Reuters
The Hajj, which begins on Wednesday, normally draws around 2.5 million people for five intense days of worship in one of the world's largest gatherings of people from around the world.
"Holding the ritual in the shadow of this pandemic... required reducing the numbers of pilgrims, but it obliged various official agencies to put in double efforts," 84-year-old King Salman said in a speech.
The ministry urged the pilgrim to obtain an approved and negative laboratory examination for the coronavirus 72 hours before the arrival in the Kingdom.
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