12/29/2006, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Hajj: millions of pilgrims commemorate Muhammad’s last sermon

Today the ritual journey from Mina (Makkah) to Mount Arafat takes place. Cold weather is not dampening pilgrims’ spirit. Security measures are tighter than ever to avoid past stampedes.

Makkah (AsiaNews/Agencies) – It is cold and the wind is blowing on the plain at the foot of Mount Arafat where, 14 centuries ago, the prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon. Today some two to three million pilgrims will be making the ritual journey from Mina valley (Makkah) till here.

The ritual, known as the standing at Arafat or waqoof, is considered the most important part of Hajj, the pilgrimage every Muslim should make at least once in his or her life.

The pilgrims will spend the night in Muzdalifa to collect pebbles for the symbolic stoning of the devil at the Jamrat in Mina in three days time.

The weather is bad and most pilgrims are spending day and night outside, in field tents or walking. Many do not have the right clothing for the current weather conditions, which were much better in previous years. More and more people are coming down with high fever and flu.

“This is unbearable. But then this is what Hajj is all about. We have to sacrifice. Hajj is no picnic as some people think. It is an arduous journey,” said Abdullah Al-Qahtani from the Kingdom’s Northern Province.

In previous years up to two million pilgrims from 170 countries took part in the pilgrimage. This year, many more are expected.

The number of foreign pilgrims participating in this year’s Hajj has reached a record 1,654,407, according to Interior Minister Prince Naif.

Saudi authorities grant a permit for every 1,000 believers in any one state, but many pilgrims come anyway without official papers.

“I’m here to answer the call of Allah and pray for peace and tranquillity in my motherland,” said Iranian pilgrim Haider Ali Najafi.

“Words can’t describe how I feel,” said Ismail Attiyeh, 45, from Syria, choking with emotion. “To see all these people from around the world responding to the call and speaking in one voice to our creator gives me unprecedented feelings.”

Despite thousands of police officers, the huge throngs of the faithful have caused problems in Mina, especially for pilgrims camping without permit or trying to pray near the al-Khaif Mosque which according to tradition holds a Muhammad relic.

Overcrowding has caused serious incidents in the past. At least 364 people were were killed in a stampede in Mina in the last Hajj, 251 the previous one, always at the entrance of the narrow Jamrat bridge from where pilgrims throw pebbles at three pillars that represent the power of evil.

In order to avoid the problem, Saudi Arabia allocated US$ 1.1 billion to expand the Jamrat Bridge into a multi-storey structure. The first phase, completed in time for this Hajj, allows up to 250,000 pilgrims to move across the bridge each hour.

A religious edict was also issued this month allowing pilgrims to begin the stoning ritual in the morning rather than the afternoon as per tradition.

But pilgrims are not worried about the risks that crowding bring. “I have no fear, no concern and no anxiety,” said Irfan Habib, who lost his uncle in last year’s Mina stampede. “It is part of our faith and that’s why we are here. If I die here Allah will reward me with paradise.”

Some HIV patients are among the pilgrims, their trip paid by anonymous donors. With a doctor as medical supervisor, they have come, happy, doing what none dared to hope they could do. (PB)

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