Pilgrims flock to Mecca for a safe and happy Haj

Pilgrims touch the golden door of the Kaaba in Mecca on September 9, 2016. Fazry Ismail / EPA
Pilgrims touch the golden door of the Kaaba in Mecca on September 9, 2016. Fazry Ismail / EPA

MECCA // Nearly two million pilgrims have converged on western Saudi Arabia for Haj, where new safety measures are in place to prevent a recurrence of last year’s tragic stampede.

The main rites of the six-day event begin on Saturday, and pilgrims were already swirling around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, a procession that continues day and night.

It is one of the first rites of Haj, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. Rich and poor alike go dressed in the same white garments.

Saudi Arabia has begun issuing pilgrims with identification bracelets, after some foreign officials expressed concern about difficulties in identifying those who died.

Each bracelet carries a bar code readable by smartphone. It indicates the pilgrim’s identity, nationality, place of lodging in Mecca, as well as other information, said Issa Rawas, the vice secretary of the ministry of Haj and Umrah. The aim was to equip all pilgrims from abroad, who are expected to number more than 1.4 million. More than 300,000 faithful from within Saudi Arabia are also expected.

Zakou Bakar, 50, a pilgrim from Niger, said the bracelet was reassuring. “If I die or if there are problems — of course we hope not — but if it does happen I know I will be identified,” he said.

Another safety measure is to suspend access to the Kaaba — the black cubic structure which Muslims face when praying — during prayers to prevent overcrowding during the walkaround.

Security has also been reinforced around Islam’s holiest site, with officers in red berets and camouflage uniforms manning green plastic barricades to control the crowd.

Pilgrims have also been told to follow the rules. “They said not to stray from our group, not to linger when buses arrive and depart, and to properly respect the designated routes,” said Rasha Mohammed, 36, of Alexandria, Egypt.

With temperatures of 43 Celsius (109 Fahrenheit) as they marched, some pilgrims seemed faint. They carried water and tried to help each other under the unforgiving heat.

During the main weekly Friday prayers, the white-clad throng made the area around the Kaaba resemble a snow-dusted field from above. Worshippers overflowed into surrounding streets which had been closed to allow access for hundreds of thousands of people as a helicopter monitored the scene.

“I feel no fear at all,” said Adil Abdulrahman, a British pilgrim who was confident that authorities have tried to make the faithful feel safe. Even the loss of a cousin in last year’s Haj did not deter Nigerian Lawan Nasir, 45, from making the pilgrimage. “it would be silly to stay away,” he said.

As one of the world’s largest annual gatherings, Haj requires highly-detailed organisation. There are 18,000 buses (of which 1,696 are new) to transport pilgrims and 60,000 employees mobilised by the ministry of Haj and Umrah. There are 25 hospitals with 5,000 beds available to treat the sick, 100 ambulances, 51 medical buses and several helicopters on standby as well as 17,000 personnel from the emergency services and 158 sick bays along the pilgrimage routes.

An army of 23,000 cleaners will keep Mecca clean and when Haj peaks on Sunday, 1.5 million litres of Zamzam water will be distributed.

Saudi Arabia also has an economic stake in pilgrimages. In 2015, foreign pilgrims spent almost $5.3 billion during Haj. As part of efforts to diversify its economy to lessen the dependence on oil, the kingdom wants to foster a year-round religious tourism sector relying on those who perform Umrah at any time of the year. The target is to increase six million annual Umrah visitors to 15 million by 2020.

The tragedy last year has helped increase tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Around 64,000 Iranians who were allocated Haj places under a quota system will be absent this year. After losing 464 citizens in last year’s tragedy — more than any other nationality — Iran is sending no pilgrims for the first time in nearly three decades.

Thousands took to the streets in protest in Tehran after Friday prayers. In an interview, the head of Iran’s Haj Organisation blamed the Saudis for refusing to discuss security measures.

Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, a London think tank, said last year’s tragedy had exposed “clearly some big organisational failings, to say the least”.

There was also “an absence of real transparency” about what went wrong, she said.

* Agence France-Presse

Published: September 9, 2016 04:00 AM

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