12/04/2008, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA - ISLAM
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Risk of attacks and lodging problems for faithful heading to Mecca

More than two and a half million Muslims will participate in the traditional pilgrimage: 1 million 750 thousand from outside of the country, and 750 thousand Saudis or immigrants to the kingdom. High alert over the risk of attacks, but the real threats are traffic, illegal occupation of public land, and problems finding lodging.

Mecca (AsiaNews/Agencies) - More than 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world will gather in Mecca beginning on December 6, to celebrate the Hajj, the traditional Islamic pilgrimage that constitutes the fifth pillar of Islam. There are expected to be about 1.75 million foreigners, joined by 750 thousand Saudi citizens or immigrant workers in the kingdom.

The Saudi government will have to address two problems in order to guarantee smooth proceedings for the pilgrimage: the danger of attacks, although there are no specific threats at the moment, and the problem of logistics, which ranges from housing the pilgrims to chaotic traffic in the city to illegal occupation of public land to the payment of the pilgrimage tax.

The pilgrimage has often been marked by violence, because of the immense crowds in the city streets, in addition to the more specifically religious places. In 2006, more than 364 people died during the ritual of "stoning the devil" - in which stones are throwing against images of the demon - and 76 died when a hostel collapsed. Deaths have also been caused by demonstrations or attacks: the most serious of these was probably the one that took place in 1979, when hundreds of people - the exact number has never been determined - perished following an attack by a group of fundamentalists who were able to take control of the Grand Mosque.

On the matter of security, Prince Naif, the Saudi interior minister, has stated that security forces are ready to face any kind of threat, and will be able to guarantee the safety of the faithful during the pilgrimage. "We don’t have any information (about threats) but we have taken all precautions." He also expresses the hope that "the holiness of this Islamic event will be respected," and that no one will endanger the lives of the Muslim faithful.

The bigger problems are in the area of logistics: because of the spike in lodging prices during the pilgrimage season, many of the faithful improvise their own solutions. About 500 Syrian pilgrims, imitated by another small group, have rented the rooms of a private school in the city, without official permission from the authorities.

Public safety officials have also communicated that pitching tents around the sacred sites or in the city streets will not be allowed, because this causes problems for traffic and public safety. Saeed Al-Qahtani, director general of public security, says that "tents used by some pilgrims who squat on the streets disrupt the movement of pedestrians, obstruct traffic and cause inconvenience to pilgrims." The tents block ambulances and emergency services personnel, preventing assistance from reaching the faithful who fall ill during the pilgrimage. Illegal occupation of public land is also contrary to the Sunna and to the precepts of Mohammed. The director of public security finally raises the alarm over accidents: the rise in the number of vehicles on the road, aggravated by problems of tiredness and recklessness, is often the cause of accidents leading to death or injury.

Finally, there is some good news for foreign pilgrims: beginning this year, it is possible to pay the tax to enter Saudi Arabia and participate in the pilgrimage directly over the internet, avoiding the long hours of waiting - often without food or water - at the government offices around the airport.

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