07/04/2022, 12.00
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One million pilgrims flock to Mecca for first Hajj since pandemic

For the past two years, the global pandemic had limited the number of pilgrims and blocked entry. For the first time, women will be able to participate without the presence of a male 'guardian'. In the past, the major pilgrimage has been the scene of incidents, attacks and used by Riyadh as a political weapon. 

Riyadh (AsiaNews) - Saudi Arabia has welcomed around a million Muslim faithful from different parts of the world over the weekend, who from 6 to 12 July will take part in the Hajj, the major pilgrimage to Mecca, the first major gathering since the start of the pandemic.

The Covid-19, in fact, in the last two years has greatly reduced the participation of Muslims, to the point of being a largely symbolic event in 2020 with only a few tens of thousands of people, citizens or residents of the Wahhabi kingdom. This year, however, the event is returning - at least in part - to its former glory and, for the first time, women will not need a male 'guardian'.

Banners and placards welcomed worshippers to Mecca, including the first international visitors since 2019 who packed the squares and alleys, while security forces patrolled the birthplace city of the Prophet Mohammed. "This is pure joy," Abdel Qader Kheder, a pilgrim from Sudan, told Afp. "I can hardly believe I am here. I am enjoying,' the man added, 'every moment. 

One million pilgrims will take part in the event, of whom 850,000 will come from abroad. This is lower than past pre-pandemic records (up to 2.5 million in 2019), but certainly a good number when compared to more recent events. Strict health safety measures are planned for this year as well: participation allowed only for people under 65 years of age, specific protocols and the large mosque cleaned and sanitised at least 10 times a day.

The Hajj, which costs a little less than €5,000 per person, is one of the main drivers of the tourism-related economy, pouring more than €11 billion a year into the State's coffers, as well as guaranteeing a privileged status among Islamic nations. It is also an opportunity to showcase a nation in rapid transformation, while still attracting criticism for violations of human rights and personal freedoms, including religious freedoms for non-Muslims. Saudi Arabia - which under recent reforms has allowed raves in Riyadh and mixed beaches in Jeddah - now allows women to participate in the pilgrimage without a male guardian. 

The major pilgrimage (Hajj) is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, and every Muslim is obliged to perform it at least once in his or her lifetime. In the past it has been used by Riyadh as a political weapon, denying entry visas and participation to Iranian (Shia) or Syrian worshippers because of the war. It has also been the scene of incidents or attacks, resulting in thousands of deaths: in 2015 a stampede through the crowd claimed at least 2,300 lives; in 2006 more than 360 pilgrims died during the stoning ritual, in which pilgrims throw stones and pebbles at three tombstones symbolising the rejection of Satan; in 1989 a double attack outside the great mosque resulted in one fatality and 16 wounded, and 16 Kuwaiti nationals were executed for the attack. 

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