Elation, tears of joy as pilgrims in Saudi vie for downsized Hajj

MAKKAH, July 18 (INP): An Indian family-of-five burst into tears of joy after being chosen for this weekend’s downsized Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

According to media reports up to 60,000 Muslims, residing in Saudi Arabia, are allowed to take part in this year’s Hajj, evoking the envy and awe of millions of international pilgrims who have been barred for the second year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Through an online vetting system, they were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants — all citizens or residents of the Kingdom.

Among the chosen ones was Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil contractor based in the eastern city of Dammam, who was picked for Haj pilgrimage along with his wife and three adult children.

The five-day pilgrimage, which started from Saturday, is confined to residents of the Kingdom who have been fully vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, the Hajj ministry said.

“I feel like I won a lottery,” Egyptian pharmacist Mohammed El Eter said after being selected. “This is a special, unforgettable moment in one’s life. I thank Allah Almighty for granting me this chance, to be accepted among a lot of people who applied,” the 31-year-old said.

The Hajj Ministry also received anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants about the tightly-controlled government lottery.

“We are still anxiously waiting to be accepted, as though we’re facing an exam,” wrote one Twitter user.

Believers converge on the city for several days of rituals in which they retrace the Prophet Mohammed’s last pilgrimage.

“I am profoundly saddened,” Pakistani clothes merchant Zafar Ullah, 64, told media after Saudi Arabia announced it was barring international pilgrims.

“I also wanted to go for Hajj last year. I was desperately hoping to make it this year and even had got myself vaccinated along with my wife.”

Even among the chosen pilgrims, some complained of the high cost of the Haj. Government Hajj packages start from around 12,100 riyals ($3,226), excluding a value added tax.

Last year, worshippers said the Saudi government covered the expenses of all pilgrims, providing them with meals, hotel accommodation and health care.

Amid the pandemic, many pilgrims consider it is safer to participate in a smaller ritual without the usual colossal crowds cramming into tiny religious sites creating a logistical nightmare and a health hazard.

“My feelings cannot be described,” said Rania Azraq, a 38-year-old Syrian housewife in Riyadh, who will attend the Hajj without a male guardian, once mandatory for female pilgrims.