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Hajj drastically scaled down as COVID-19 reshapes pilgrimage

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(Last Updated On: July 30, 2020)

Small groups of Hajj pilgrims, wearing face masks, who had spent days in isolation, began arriving Wednesday from across Saudi Arabia at Islam’s holiest site in Mecca for this year’s scaled-down Hajj. 

Earlier this year Saudi officials announced that only a very limited number of people, who live in Saudi Arabia, will be allowed to attend Hajj due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Most years Hajj draws over two million pilgrims. This year the numbers will only be between 1,000 and 10,000 people and instead of standing and praying shoulder-to-shoulder, pilgrims will now adhere to social distancing regulations and move in small groups of 20. 

The Saudi government has not however released the exact numbers of pilgrims this year but for those who arrived on Wednesday, strict measures had to be followed before the start of Hajj. 

They were all tested for COVID-19, given wristbands that connect to their phones and track their movements and for days leading up to Wednesday, they were quarantined in their hotel rooms in Mecca. 

For this group, Hajj will end on Sunday and they will then be required to spend another week in quarantine. 

For months Mecca has been sealed off and no international media will be permitted to cover this year’s Hajj. Instead, the Saudi government broadcast live from the Grand Mosque on Wednesday. 

Meanwhile, pilgrims will not be allowed to touch the Kaaba this year and other health measures have been introduced. 

Speaking to CNN, Assistant Deputy Minister for Preventative Health at the Saudi Ministry of Health, Dr. Abdullah Assiri said: “We are trying to apply the concept of safety bubbles, where every pilgrim will have an environment around him or her that are free and safe as much as possible from any kind of hazards, so all that is needed by the Hajjis is their personal protective equipment their hygiene products are provided free of charge.” 

But for millions of Muslims around the world, last month’s announcement by the Saudi government came as a heavy blow. 

For the government however it was a difficult decision but one it made as it battles a surge in Coronavirus cases. 

Saudi Arabia has recorded over 250,000 cases so far including 2,523 deaths – the highest toll among the Arab Gulf states.

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Pakistan invites Afghan cricket team on official tour

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(Last Updated On: November 25, 2020)

Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has invited Afghanistan’s national cricket team on an official tour for the first time, officials said Tuesday.

This historic move follows the recent visit to Kabul by Prime Minister Imran Khan – one of the game’s greatest players.

“We’ll try to look for a possible window for this tour – and if not 2021, we’ll definitely try to plan a series in 2022 season,” said PCB chief executive Wasim Khan.

“A cricket series between Pakistan and Afghanistan could be a harbinger of love and peace between the two countries,” he told AFP.

An Afghan national side toured Pakistan in May 2011 but they only played a second-string side and matches were not given first-class status.

The two countries have played only a single official one-day match and one Twenty20 international – both in the United Arab Emirates.

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Taliban ignoring calls for reduction in violence: US envoy

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(Last Updated On: November 23, 2020)

Despite concerted efforts on the part of the United States to get the Taliban to reduce its levels of violence in the country, the group has failed to listen to calls from the US and in fact dislike being criticized.

Speaking virtually to the media on Monday, the US Chargé d’Affaires to Afghanistan Ross Wilson said the United States has not been able to convince the Taliban to scale down on violent attacks.

There has been a marked increase in violence by the Taliban since the signing of the US-Taliban deal in February in Doha.

In line with this, Wilson said: “We are deeply concerned about the Taliban’s [increase in] violence since February 29, it is not consistent with the terms that we believe we agreed upon with the Taliban.

“We have told the Taliban this very clearly and directly many times, they don’t like the criticism from us, they don’t like the implied criticism from the United Nations, from the EU from other international communities.

“I regret deeply that we have not yet had more success in and seeing or generally having resulting decrease in the level of violence of the very significant reduction that we believe was part of the deal in February and that has not materialized; certainly not that we have expected or that we would like to expect,” said Wilson.

Wilson added that he has also spoken to a number of media outlets to address challenges and threats against journalists and added that efforts are underway to find solutions.

“We strongly support free and independent media in this country; last week with media figures [we] talked about specific problem of assassinations, threats against journalists and how we in this country and other international firms can help to address that problem,” Wilson added.

Experts believe that the Taliban continue to use violence to gain points in peace talks.

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Nine Australian soldiers commit suicide in just three weeks

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(Last Updated On: November 23, 2020)

Nine Australian soldiers have taken their own lives in just three weeks amid weeks of discussions and media coverage of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, the Daily Mail reported. 

The four-year inquiry uncovered a ‘shameful record’ of unlawful killings that took place outside the ‘heat of battle’.

An edited version of the report was released on Thursday after a four-year inquiry uncovered a “shameful record” of unlawful killings. 

The Daily Mail reported that in the past three weeks one female and eight male soldiers, aged between early 20s and 50s, have taken their own lives. 

According to the news report, so many soldiers taking their own lives in such a short space of time is believed to be unprecedented in recent Australian military history.

It is believed the stress of the inquiry – which uncovered evidence of 39 murders by Australian Special Forces – played a part in some of their suicides, the Daily Mail stated.

‘I think some of the media [reports of alleged war crimes] has been painting everyone with the same brush and people seem to have forgotten about innocence until proven guilty – and that adds additional stress,’ ex-infantry soldier and veterans’ mental health advocate Neil ‘Wally’ Wallace told The Advertiser. 

However, the Mail reported that there is no suggestion the nine late ADF members had anything to do with the alleged war crimes documented in the report.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation said in reaction to the report: “There is no way to define this brutality. There is no way to explain what has happened. It is incomprehensible.”

“These are crimes against innocent people, and I was shocked. At the same time, the Australian government has come very clear with it – about what has happened.”

Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson meanwhile told Al Jazeera that the Afghan victims deserve swift and independent justice for the “deliberate and cold-blooded killings”.

“Ultimately, if we’re talking about accountability, this should not just stop with the people who pulled the trigger and killed these people in Afghanistan,” she told the BBC.

“This is also about command responsibility and so I think that it’s very important that those who knew or who should have known are also held to account and are held criminally liable for these acts.”

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