MECCA - Hajj - the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca - has begun, but under dramatically different circumstances due to the coronavirus outbreak.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is required for all Muslims who are physically or financially capable of undertaking it at least once in their lifetime and is usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings.
But this year, only up to 10,000 people already residing in Saudi Arabia will participate in the five-day pilgrimage, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world that attended last year.
"There are no security-related concerns in this pilgrimage, but [downsizing] is to protect pilgrims from the danger of the pandemic," said Khalid bin Qarar Al-Harbi, Saudi Arabia's director of public security.
Pilgrims will be required to wear masks and observe physical distancing during a series of religious rites that are completed over five days in the holy city of Mecca and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia.
Those selected to take part in the Hajj were subject to temperature checks and placed in a short quarantine ahead of the rites beginning on Wednesday.
State media showed health workers sanitising pilgrims' luggage, and pilgrims reported being given electronic wristbands to allow authorities to monitor their whereabouts.
Workers, armed with brooms and disinfectant, were seen cleaning the area around the Kaaba, the structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque draped in gold-embroidered black cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.
Touching or kissing the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, is banned this year. All pilgrims must also maintain a physical distance of 1.5 metres (five feet) during prayers.
Hajj authorities reported setting up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims. The foreign press is barred from this year's Hajj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to Mecca.(FA)