12/28/2006, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Millions of Muslims start Mecca pilgrimage

The authorities are hoping there will be no deaths caused by overcrowding and stampedes this year. More than 300 people died last year.

Mecca (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Around three million Muslim believers this morning started the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (Haj) as new security measures have been put in place in a bid to avert stampedes that cause the death of hundreds of people each year.

 

Last year, 364 people died during the Haj in Mina valley as they were preparing for a ritual that entails hurling stones at a wall. Another crush of people two years ago claimed 251 lives. Both incidents took place at the foot of a bridge, Jamarat, from where pilgrims throw stones at three pillars that symbolize the power of evil.

 

After last year’s serious incident, the authorities decided to destroy the bridge, where bottlenecks always occur, and this year they hope to avoid further tragedy.

 

The Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and all Muslims are obliged to undertake the pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime, if they are physically and financially able. Many of those who decide to go on the pilgrimage are elderly people who have saved money for their entire lives to be able to reach Mecca. But old age and the hardships of the journey are another leading cause of death.

 

The Haj Supreme Committee said that this year 202 pilgrims had died from heart problems since arriving in Arabia. The health ministry said more than 9,600 medical personnel have been mobilised and 21 field hospitals set up. At least 50,000 policemen have been deployed to guarantee order.

 

The Haj starts today with the gathering of the faithful at Mina near Mecca. Tomorrow they start their journey towards Mount Arafat, spending the day in prayer in symbolic anticipation of the Day of Judgement. On Saturday, returning to Mecca, they will celebrate the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid Al Adha), which commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham (God’s demand that he sacrifice this son Ishmael).

 

When pilgrims return to Mecca, they must walk seven times in an anti-clockwise direction round the Kaaba, the “black stone”, an enormous cube in the centre of the great mosque, which is held to be the first temple of Islam.

In the next days there is the ritual of throwing stones in Mina, which symbolizes the rejection of evil.

 

To avoid overcrowding, the Saudi authorities have established an official quota of pilgrims per Islamic country (usually based on the ratio of one pilgrim per one thousand of its population). But believers who are not part of the quota system anyhow turn up from everywhere and they make management of the pilgrimage difficult.

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