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Pilgrimage to Mecca brings millions of Muslims to Saudi Arabia every year. But now the kingdom has launched a virtual reality initiative that it says will allow Muslims to touch the Black Stone, a rock at the southeastern corner of the holy Kaaba, without leaving home.

Named the “Virtual Black Stone Initiative”, the new VR technology would bring Islam’s holiest site to Muslims’ living rooms at a time when Covid-19 has hampered travel and Saudi authorities have limited pilgrim numbers to tackle the pandemic.

The 30cm-diameter rock at the Kaaba, known in Arabic as al-Hajr al-Aswad, is revered by Muslims, who believe it has fallen from heaven and dates back to the era of Adam and Eve.

Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, was the first to experience the scheme, sporting virtual reality goggles for the inauguration last week.

Sudais said that Saudi Arabia has “great religious and historical sites that we must digitise and communicate to everyone through the means of the latest technology”.

However, not everyone is happy with the initiative.

Some social media users saw the use of virtual reality technology in holy places as “tampering with religion” and “fiddling with God’s Sharia”, while others wondered if Muslims will perform pilgrimage, which requires circumambulating around the Kaaba, using VR goggles from their homes instead of going to Mecca.

All able-bodied Muslims are expected to perform Hajj, the major annual pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lives.

In July, Saudi Arabia allowed only 60,000 citizens and residents, who were fully vaccinated, to perform Hajj, a figure falling from 2.5 million pilgrims in 2019, before the pandemic.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia detected its first case of Omicron, the new Covid-19 variant, and imposed a travel ban on non-citizens from seven African nations.

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