MASK-WEARING Muslim pilgrims gathered near the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia on Thursday for the climax of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which was significantly curtailed this year due to COVID-19.
A few thousand people are taking part, a fraction of the 2.5 million people who usually gather every year in Mecca for Islam’s biggest gathering.
This is the first time Saudi Arabia decided to drastically limit the number of pilgrims at the Hajj in modern history.
But the situation may be almost the same in many worship centres and recreation grounds in parts of Nigeria, except in Oyo State where the government gave the nod for Eid grounds to be opened for Muslim faithful to gather for prayers today.
Recreation centres in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) will be devoid of fun-seekers and entertainers as the authorities directed that they be shut down.
In Saudi on Thursrday, pilgrims, who were clad in their traditional snow-white robes, wore face masks and observed distancing as they prayed inside al-Namirah Mosque in the area of Mount Arafat, around 20 kilometres east of Mecca.
The granite hill is the site where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his last sermon, around 14 centuries ago.
A senior Saudi cleric urged the Muslims to show patience during the “tribulation” of the pandemic.
“Among the traits of the faithful is to be patient over painful fates,” Abdullah al-Manea, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest Islamic body, said in a televised sermon marking the peak of the Hajj.
“Life in this world is not without disasters. [But] tribulations, however large their scale may, will not continue forever. God’s mercy is larger,” he added in the sermon delivered in al-Namirah mosque.
Live broadcasting of the ritual sermon showed mask-wearing pilgrims listening and praying using personal rugs as part of strict health precautions.
Saudi authorities also set up sterilised tents to accommodate pilgrims in Arafat, Saudi state television al-Ekhbariya reported.
The pilgrims stayed at Arafat until dusk yesterday praying and reciting the holy Koran.
They ritually chant there for God to forgive their sins.
The pilgrims moved from there to a nearby area of Muzdalifah, where they picked sanitized pebbles from a bag for a symbolic stoning of the devil ritual in the desert valley of Mina, about seven kilometres north-east of Mecca.
Today, which marks the start of the Muslim Eid al-Adha, the pilgrims will converge on Mina for the stoning ritual.
In Abuja, FCT Minister Muhammad Bello urged residents to enjoy the festivities from the comfort of their homes as all recreational parks and other leisure locations remained closed.
Bello, who said this as part of his Sallah message, congratulated the Muslim faithful in the FCT and urged them to use the occasion to offer supplication to Almighty Allah for a quick end to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He reminded the Muslim Ummah that the celebration of Eid-el-Kabir was significant because it was a festival of sharing and caring for the less fortunate members of the society.
A statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Anthony Ogunleye, quoted him as also reminding the residents that “the protocols of facial coverings, physical distancing and regular hand washing have been put in place to safe-guard against contracting the virus.”
But the reverse seemed the case in Oyo State where Governor Seyi Makinde directed that prayer grounds be opened for Muslim faithful to observe Eid-el-Kabir prayers.
Each of the prayer grounds must not accommodate more than 25 per cent of their capacity, said a statement by Makinde’s spokesman, Taiwo Adisa.
The leadership of each prayer grounds is to ensure the availability of hand wash points and compulsory wearing of face masks by worshippers.
The statement reads in part: “As the Muslim Ummah prepare to undertake this year’s Eid-el-Kabir prayers, the Government of Oyo State wishes to advice Islamic clerics and leaders to the need to maintain strict compliance with COVID-19 protocols, especially the social distancing rule.
“His Excellency reckons that prayers are important to overcome the challenges that presently assail us, especially the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To further ensure safety and ownership of the Covid-19 preventive measures, the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), of the Oyo State COVID-19 Task Force, has sent advisories to major markets and shopping malls, on the need for strict compliance with COVID-19 preventive protocols during this festive period and beyond.
“In addition to these measures, however, all clerics and leaders are expected to take on the responsibility of guiding our people to pay attention to even the minutest detail on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during this festivity.
“The Oyo State government wishes the Muslim Ummah a peaceful Eid-el-Kabir, filled with the blessings and benevolence of Almighty Allah.”
The Hajj, one of Islam’s five pillars, is a mandatory duty for all Muslims once in a lifetime if they possess enough financial resources and are physically capable of undertaking the journey.
During the Hajj, male pilgrims usually wear seamless pieces of white cloth, while women wear loose garments without make-up or jewelry.
Their attire symbolises abandoning worldly wealth and acknowledging equality.
The pilgrimage takes place annually from the eighth to the 12th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar.