Saudi Arabia will allow pilgrims living inside the country to undertake the Umrah pilgrimage, beginning on October 4, after a seven-month pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, state news agency Saudi Press Agency has reported.
In March, the country had declared a freeze on Umrah, which is an Islamic pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina undertaken any time of the year, attracting 19 million people last year.
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Saudi Arabia will now allow 6,000 citizens and residents inside the kingdom to perform Umrah daily, representing 30 percent of a revised capacity of 20,000 that takes into account precautionary health measures, SPA said.
That will expand to 75 percent of capacity on October 18. Beginning on November 1, the kingdom will allow visitors from specific countries deemed safe to perform Umrah at 100 percent of the revised capacity, until the end of the pandemic, SPA added.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is developing a mobile application that will be available a week before the Umrah resumes, so that pilgrims can register and book on it. They will also need to follow the health guidelines provided in the app.
The decision to resume Umrah came after the kingdom organised the smallest Hajj in modern history in late July, with only up to 10,000 Muslims allowed to take part in total – a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated last year.
Health authorities said no coronavirus cases were reported at the holy sites during the Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime.
Hajj pilgrims circled the sacred Kaaba – a cubic structure inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque towards which Muslims around the world pray – along socially distant paths.
The kingdom has sought to contain a spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 330,000 cases – the highest in the Gulf – and at least 4,500 deaths.
But Saudi Arabia has also reported a high rate of recoveries, which surpassed 312,000 on Tuesday.
Last week, Saudi Arabia partially lifted its suspension on international flights, six months after travel curbs were imposed due to the pandemic.
Official data show Hajj and Umrah earn the kingdom about $12bn a year.