08/22/2009, 00.00

Ramadan begins for many Arab countries and Iran

It is the month of fasting and charity. Muslims must abstain from food, drink and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset. In Saudi Arabia there is a swine flu emergency, slowing down the arrival of pilgrims on the Omra. But there are hundreds of thousands of beggars, many of them children, organized by racketeers.

Riyadh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Today the majority of Arab countries and Iran began the month of Ramadan, dedicated to fasting and charity. The religious leaders in Saudi Arabia and Iran set the date according to astronomical observations. The sacred month, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, starts today in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Palestinian Territories and other Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. In Libya, however, the starting date was yesterday, as well as for the Shia in Lebanon.

During this month Muslims must abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, having sexual relations from sunrise to sunset.

King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, guardian of the most important holy places of Islam, sent out a message last night asking all Muslims during the month to absorb themselves in the qualities of mercy, tolerance, generosity, and follow the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad. "We have to commit ourselves - he said - to the spirit of brotherhood and to improve feelings of compassion, generosity and mercy, seeking our reward from God."

During the month of Ramadan, hundreds of thousands of faithful Muslims travel to Mecca on the "little pilgrimage" or Omra (different to the Hajj, the great pilgrimage, which this year takes place in November). This year there are fears of a drop in attendance due to the swine flu epidemic. Several countries, including Iran, Egypt and France have advised Muslims not to travel to Mecca.

Compensating for the decline in pilgrims, this year the number of beggars swarming Mecca has risen disproportionately, all seeking to take advantage of the call for generosity during the month of Ramadan. Throughout the holy month many old people enter the country to beg. But for many, the charity system has become subjected to racketeering. Captain Eqab Al-Rubaie, director of operations in the passport department in Mecca, reports that so far they have arrested 677 beggars of different nationalities. But the largest arrest occurred in the province of Asir, south of Arabia, where the number detained is more than 23 thousand, mostly Yemenis.

One university study showed that at least 100 thousand child beggars arrive in Saudi Arabia each year. Most of them came from Yemen, and then from several Asian and African countries.

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