İrem UZUN -TDO- A limited number of pilgrims returned to Islam's holiest site on Sunday after Saudi Arabia partially lifted coronavirus restrictions that had been in place since March. The Saudi government started allowing a maximum of 6,000 people a day to enter Mecca's Grand Mosque to perform Umrah - a pilgrimage to Islam's two holiest sites that can be taken at any time of year.

Only Saudi citizens and residents will be permitted to enter the mosque during this first phase of reopening, and each pilgrim has up to three hours to complete the pilgrimage. The Grand Mosque, which is being sterilized and cleaned multiple times a day, houses the Kaaba, towards which observant Muslims pray five times a day.  Worshippers who wish to enter the mosque for Friday prayers or to perform the Umrah have to apply to reserve a time and date through an online application launched by the authorities to avoid overcrowding. "In an atmosphere of faith and with assured hearts... the first batch of pilgrims begin the pilgrimage in accordance with the precautionary measures laid out," the hajj ministry said on Twitter.

The second phase for loosening restrictions at the Grand Mosque comes into effect on October 18, allowing a maximum of 15,000 pilgrims and 40,000 for prayer from among residents and citizens based on allocated times via the app.  Muslim travelers from outside Saudi Arabia could be allowed to perform the Umrah pilgrimage as early as November 1, the Interior Ministry has said.

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