Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Allah’s 10,000 chosen

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The coronavirus has failed to end Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia), but it has conditioned it in a way that is not remembered in recent history. Of the 2.5 million participants who came from all over the world in the previous edition, it has gone down to only 10,000, all of them under 65 years old, Saudi or foreigners residing in the kingdom and the selection process has not been without controversy. The usual image of the crowd circling the ‘kabaa’ has evolved into a series of orderly circles of worshipers who maintained social distance around the black cube-shaped construction considered ‘the house of God’.

Such a strong restriction on the number of pilgrims is obviously a direct consequence of the health pandemic that has plagued the world since the beginning of the year. Saudi Arabia is also a place punished by the virus, since it exceeds 260,000 infected and in recent weeks there has been a rebound in the curve with an average of 2,000 new cases a day, so the measures taken in the holy places of the entire kingdom are maxims.

The Hajj is the pilgrimage that every Muslim must make at least once in his life if health and wallet allow him, according to the Koran. It’s one of the five pillars of Islam (the other four are the profession of faith, prayer five times a day, fasting during Ramadan and alms) and it serves for the faithful to cleanse their souls and demonstrate that they are all equal before God. There are an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, so the number of applications for Hajj infinitely exceeds the capacity of holy places.

There is usually a quota system, which guarantees the presence of the faithful from all over the planet, which is completed with a draw organized by each Ministry of Religious Affairs in Islamic countries to try that all the faithful have equal opportunities. Once your name comes out in the draw and you travel to Mecca, you cannot repeat until after 5 years.

In this edition the virus has marked the selection of the lucky ones and the Saudi ministry of Hajj has worked with the Ministry of Health to give the final green light to each of the attendees prioritizing “health criteria”, as they have insisted. «If when there are more than two million seats there is discomfort for the distribution, imagine 10,000. In all the draws there is room for the picaresque and the mafias, and this is no exception, “explains Karim Mohamed, head of Liberty Tour Spain, an agency that organizes trips every year to participate in Hajj.

Pilgrimage to Mecca this year. / AFP

“No human interference”

In Spain, the faithful do not need to enter a draw and to travel they must hire the services of one of the authorized agencies such as Karim, where a one-week package in a triple room without meals included costs 5,500 euros per person. If you want a four-star or higher hotel, the price amounts to 9,000 euros per pilgrim. In the case of Spanish Muslims, if they pay, they can travel as many times as they want.

It didn’t take long for social networks to spread the discomfort due to a selection process that the critical voices called “opaque.” In the face of the wave of criticism and suspicion about the way to choose the 10,000 lucky, Hajj Saudi Minister Muhammad Saleh Benten, had to appear before the media to clarify that “there has been no human interference in the process, the mechanism has been strong and transparent, without exceptions.” In his attempt to alleviate suspicions, he announced that “no official position will have the option of making a pilgrimage in this edition.” This complicated year, the international press has also been left out and the coverage of the event has been made by the official media of the kingdom.

Despite the strong restrictions, faithful from 160 countries took part in the lottery organized by Saudi Arabia to qualify for open places for foreign residents in the country, 7,000. The quota for the nationals, the remaining 3,000, was completed with health personnel working in the fight against the pandemic and the military who have recovered after contracting the virus. “The government has kept the information about the selection secret so as not to generate much debate, only when the pilgrimage was underway have we learned the details about the quotas for nationals and foreign residents, for example. This year has been a very opaque process due to its extreme sensitivity, “reports Umar Karim, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London. In Karim’s opinion, “many people have tried to go this year because, despite the restrictions, it will be more bearable and much more organized than when there are millions of people.”

Image from last year: a riot of people circling around the 'kabaa', the house of God.
Image from last year: a riot of people circling around the ‘kabaa’, the house of God. / AFP

Accompanied women

This 2020 Hajj «will be a turning point, it will mark a before and after because the authorities will try to resize the event in future editions. I believe that from now on there will be less offer and, of course, the trip will become more expensive, “says Karim from Ceuta.

Before the arrival of the coronavirus, all attendees had to present a vaccination certificate against meningitis and meningococcus and those under 15 years of age must also be vaccinated against polio. Regarding women who want to make this pilgrimage, the Saudi Hajj ministry states that “they must travel with a Mahram (a male guardian who is normally a father, husband or brother). It is necessary to send a proof of relationship along with the application form. Women aged 45 and over will be able to travel without this figure if they are traveling with an organized group, provided they present a Mahram letter of conformity with their authorization. This letter must be notarized ».

With Hajj over, it is time to celebrate Eid Al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice of the lamb. As happened with Ramadan and Eid-A Fitr, the occasion will be marked by the pandemic and that is why the authorities have decreed new confinements in countries such as Iraq or Lebanon. The coronavirus has forced the main celebrations of Islam in this 2020 to be transferred to the houses.

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