Pilgrims in Saudi Arabia for Hajj
Muslims from around the world have begun the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, to Saudi Arabia.
The four-day event draws around 2.5 million worshippers each year to holy sites.
Throughout the weekend, tens of thousands of pilgrims circulated around the Kaaba, a cube-like structure considered Islam’s holiest building, inside the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca.
Pilgrims will gather at Mount Arafat, east of Mecca, at dawn Monday at the site where the Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon.
They will then descend the mountain, passing through Muzdalifah, until they return to the tent city of Mina, retracing the route taken by Muhammad 14 centuries ago. They will cast stones at walls in Mina in a symbolic renunciation of the devil.
The pilgrimage ends with the start of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, or “Feast of the Sacrifice,” featuring the sacrificial killing of sheep, goats, cows or camels.
The hajj is one of the largest religious gatherings in the world and is one of Islam’s five obligations. Every Muslim who is physically able and can afford it must perform the pilgrimage at least once during their lifetime.
This year, some pilgrims are travelling by train on new 18-kilometre-long elevated rail line, built to alleviate traffic congestion.
The train has the capacity to carry 180,000 passengers to hajj sites. Due to its limited capacity, the train will this year only carry residents of Saudi Arabia or other Persian Gulf Arabs. Next year it will open to other nationalities, officials said.
The $2 billion train was constructed by a Chinese company. About 100 Egyptians have been brought in to help operate the train during this year’s hajj because of their experience running Cairo’s metro.
In the early part of the decade, a number of pilgrims were crushed to death when panicked people stampeded in the congested areas around holy sites.
Pilgrims not a target, al-Qaeda group says
Besides crowding, authorities are also concerned about security.
Last Thursday, Interior Minister Prince Nayef said security forces were on alert for any threats. An al-Qaeda offshoot in neighbouring Yemen has targeted senior Saudi officials and has claimed responsibility for a recent overseas mail bomb plot.
When asked about the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack, Nayef said, “We don’t rule out any possibility of something that disturbs the security” of the pilgrims.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula responded with an internet statement Sunday saying it would never target pilgrims and accusing the Saudis of spreading lies.
“We assure our Muslim nation that we are against any criminal act against pilgrims,” the statement said.