Saturday, December 6, 2008

Pilgrims flood Mecca for annual hajj

Saudi Arabia has mobilised a force of 100,000 men to protect an estimated two million Muslim pilgrims starting the annual hajj on Saturday [heading to a tent camp outside the holy city of Mecca in an itinerary retracing the route Prophet Mohammad (saw) took 14 centuries ago –ed.] amid fears of attack or deadly stampedes.

The interior ministry said that in addition to many thousands of Saudis, an estimated 1.7 million of the faithful have descended on the kingdom from abroad to perform the annual rites.

Local press reports spoke of a throng that could reach three million, and the official SPA news agency reported on Saturday that everything was proceeding smoothly.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam which the Qur'an says all Muslims must carry out at least once in their lives, if they are able to do so.

It began early on Saturday as pilgrims arrived on foot or by bus in Mina, a dusty valley 10 kilometres (six miles) from the holy city of Mecca.

Dozens of first aid stations lined the route, SPA reported.

Devotees are spending the day in prayer and contemplation in the valley, transformed into a city of fireproof tents.
At dawn on Sunday, they will head for the top of nearby Mount Arafat. Their time at the summit symbolises the wait for the last judgment and is the high point of the hajj.

Next, the pilgrims return to Mina to sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep, to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son on God's orders. This marks the start of the Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice.

They will spend another two days in Mina for the final rite -- the stoning of Satan. Each pilgrim throws 21 pebbles at each of three pillars symbolising the devil.

It is the most hazardous of the rituals. The pillars were enlarged a few years ago into 25-metre (80-foot) high concrete blocks. Bridges have been built at three levels at the site to help prevent a recurrence of fatal stampedes.

The vast tide of humanity massing in relatively small spaces has been the source of the bloodiest disasters, with stampedes causing the deaths of 364 people in 2006, 251 in 2004 and 1,426 in 1990.
After the stoning ceremony, the pilgrims go to Mecca's Great Mosque for a "farewell visit" to the Kaabah, a cube-shaped structure into which is set the Black Stone, Islam's most sacred relic.

US-made Sikorsky S-92 helicopters fitted with sophisticated technology such as night vision equipment are being used for the first time amid the spectre of the attacks which have haunted Saudi Arabia in recent years.
"(Saudi forces) are ready to cope with their responsibilities," Interior Minister Prince Nayef Bin Abdel Aziz said after inspecting the security forces supervising the hajj.

"Terrorism is not finished. It is still going," Prince Nayef told journalists ahead of the pilgrimage. -- Agence France-Presse - 12/6/2008 12:11 PM GMT

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