ARAFAT: Thousands of face-masked Muslims gathered on Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat on Monday, praying for an end to the pandemic and faster vaccination as the annual Haj pilgrimage reached its climax.

Saudi Arabia has barred worshippers from abroad for a second year running and restricted entry from within the kingdom to guard against the coronavirus and new variants.

Only 60,000 Saudi citizens and residents, aged 18 to 65, who have been fully vaccinated or have recovered from the virus and who do not suffer from chronic diseases, were selected for the rite.

“It is an indescribable feeling that I got selected among millions of people to attend the Haj. I pray for God to put an end to these hard times the whole world has gone through under the coronavirus,” said Um Ahmed, a Palestinian pilgrim who lives in the Saudi capital Riyadh and said she lost four family members to the virus.

At the Nimra mosque, pilgrims sat two metres apart on their prayer mats, some shedding tears and others raising both hands as they prayed at noon.

Karimullah al-Sheikh, from India, said he was praying for his country, which has seen a surge in infections, to get rid of the virus and for everyone there to get vaccinated promptly.

Hafiz Kadiku, an American working in Saudi, said he had broader wishes: “There is so much racism ... I pray to Allah to make everyone love one another.” In previous years, more than two million pilgrims would cover the rocky mound on the Arafat plain, sitting close to each other in the scorching heat of the desert.

Sheikh Bandar Balila, delivering the Arafat sermon during the Haj’s most important rite, praised the efforts of Saudi authorities to ensure safety and prevent the gathering from becoming a focus of the pandemic.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2021

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