Saudi Arabia's health ministry has ruled that only people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 will be allowed to attend the hajj this year, Saudi newspaper Okaz reported on Monday.
"The COVID-19 vaccine is mandatory for those willing to come to the hajj and will be one of the main conditions (for receiving a permit to come)," the report said, citing a circular signed by Saudi Arabian Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah.
Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina and its peaceful organization of the hajj, which has been marred in the past by deadly stampedes, fires and riots.
In 2020, the kingdom dramatically reduced the number of pilgrims to around 1,000 to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, after barring Muslims abroad from the rite for the first time in modern times.
The hajj is one of Islam's most important requirements, performed once in a lifetime for those who have the means. It follows a route the Prophet Muhammad walked nearly 1,400 years ago and is believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are referred to in the Bible. The hajj, both physically and spiritually demanding, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims.
The congregation of millions of pilgrims from around the world could be a major cause of coronavirus transmission. In the past, worshippers have returned home with respiratory and other diseases.
The pilgrimage is a journey that Muslims traditionally share with relatives. In past years, it was common to see men pushing their elderly parents in wheelchairs to help them complete the hajj and parents carrying children on their backs. The communal feeling of more than 2.5 million people from around the world praying together, eating together and repenting together has long been part of what makes the hajj both a challenging and rewarding experience like no other. However, Muslim pilgrims were eating prepackaged meals alone in their hotel rooms and praying at a distance from one another last year.
Al-Rabiah said the government should be prepared to "secure the manpower required to operate health facilities in Mecca and Medina." He added that these facilities will be placed at entry points for Muslim pilgrims.
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