July 29 (UPI) -- The Hajj, Islam's most sacred pilgrimage, started late Tuesday in Saudi Arabia under coronavirus restrictions that greatly restricted crowds.
Saudi officials limited Hajj attendance this year to only a few thousand for the five-day pilgrimage, and restricted the number of worshipers allowed at Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina, which normally draw more than 2 million people.
The pilgrimage began on Tuesday night and will last until Sunday.
Earlier this month, Saudi officials said they would not allow international travelers to attend the Hajj due to COVID-19, the first time such a restriction has ever been imposed. Foreign tourists normally make up 70 percent of worshipers.
The Saudi health ministry also said it will assign one "health leader" for every 50 pilgrims this year.
"The health leader will be in charge of making sure that his crew are following the health precautionary and preventive measures imposed by the authority, including social distancing and moving among sacred places, for their safety and comfort," the ministry said in a statement.
The attendees for this year's Hajj were required to go through a strict process that included periods of self-isolation before arriving in the holy cities. They also are expected to quarantine after their arrival and upon their return, Saudi officials added.
"Hajj in 2020 is a truly exceptional pilgrimage by all measures," Saudi Hajj and Umrah minister Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten said in a statement. "Due to the exceptional global health circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic, strict precautionary measures have been applied to ensure a healthy Hajj for all pilgrims."