AMMAN, Jordan -- Muslim pilgrims started performing the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, although Islam's largest gathering has been significantly curtailed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A few thousand people are taking part, a fraction of the usually 2.5 million people from all over the world who usually gather annually in the holy city of Mecca.
This year, only Saudis and foreigners from 160 nations already residing in the kingdom are taking part. International flights to and from Saudi Arabia have been suspended since March.
Pilgrims start the Hajj by walking seven times in a counter-clockwise direction around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped holy building inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They also run back and forth between two historical hills in the area.
The pilgrims walked along signs put on the floor to maintain social distancing, a major difference from the usually packed Grand Mosque every year during the Hajj. They were also carrying umbrellas to protect them amid the summer heat.
Ahead of the Hajj, pilgrims spent one week quarantined at home and another four days in isolation in Mecca, as part of strict measures imposed by authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among pilgrims, according to the Ministry of Media.
Face masks are mandatory, buses transporting pilgrims between the different sites must be occupied at 50% capacity, and pilgrims will only be offered pre-packaged meals.
Ahmed al-Mandhari, the World Health Organization's regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, praised Saudi Arabia's decision to limit the number of pilgrims taking part in this year's Hajj.
The decision "aimed at ensuring the safety of pilgrims and promoting health security inside and outside the kingdom," al-Mandhari told a news conference held online.
This is the first time Saudi Arabia decided to drastically limit the number of pilgrims at the Hajj in modern history.
The Gulf monarchy has reported more than 270,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the highest number of infections in the Arab World. Around 2,800 people have died.
Pilgrims will spend the night at the Mina valley before heading to Mount Arafat, around 12 miles east of Mecca, where the Hajj reaches its peak on Thursday.
The pilgrimage annually takes place from the eighth to the 12th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
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