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Two million Muslims begin hajj in Makkah

Published on: 9:39 am - Sunday | September 11, 2016

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Nearly two million Muslims launched the annual hajj pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites Saturday, undeterred by a stampede last year that cost around 2,300 lives. The numbers are down because of the absence of tens of thousands of Iranians over tensions between their Shiite nation and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia which is home to the sites in Makkah and Medina.

The 2015 stampede magnified those frictions. After preliminary rituals this week in Makkah at the Grand Mosque, the pilgrims moved on Saturday, many by bus, in debilitating temperatures exceeding 40 C (100 F) to Mina, several kilometers to the east. They are following in the footsteps of their Prophet Mohammed who performed the same rituals about 1,400 years ago. “It’s an indescribable feeling. You have to live it to understand. This is my sixth hajj and I still cannot express how happy I am to be in Makkah,” said Hassan Mohammed, 60, from Egypt. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which capable Muslims must perform at least once, marking the spiritual peak of their lives. “People come from every country  of the world, talk every language of the world, and meet here in one place under one banner, the profession of the Muslim faith, which brings the prophet’s cultural adapting termed Muslim Ummah” said S H Nowroj 52 from Bangladesh.

The first day of hajj was traditionally the chance for pilgrims to let their animals drink and to stock up on water. Then they proceed to Mount Arafat, several kilometers further, for the peak of the hajj on Sunday. Mina becomes their base, where an expanse of solidly-built white fireproof tents can accommodate 2.6 million pilgrims. Last September 24, Mina was the scene of the deadliest disaster in hajj history, when the stampede broke out as pilgrims made their way to the Jamarat Bridge for a stoning ritual.

This year’s “Stoning of the Devil” will start on Monday. Although Riyadh stuck with a stampede death toll of 769, data from foreign officials in more than 30 countries gave a tally almost three times higher — at least 2,297. Saudi Arabia announced an investigation but no results have ever been released, although a number of safety measures have been taken. Government facilities have been moved out of Mina to free up space, Saudi newspapers reported, and roads in the Jamarat area expanded.

Interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki spoke of “great efforts being exerted by the kingdom, not only in maintaining the security and safety of the pilgrims, but in facilitating performance” of the rites. Many pilgrims appeared satisfied on Saturday. “Everything is well organized,” said Nasser Benfitah, 54, from Morocco. “We feel safe,” chimed in a Nigerian pilgrim, Hafsa Amina, 26. The hajj draws rich and poor, whose common humanity is emphasized by the white garment that each man wears. Women wear loose dresses, typically also white. Despite the safety and security measures which Saudi Arabia says it has taken, Iranian authorities have questioned the kingdom’s custodianship of Islam’s holiest places.

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