Saudi Arabia put the final touches on
preparations for the annual Haj pilgrimage yesterday as hundreds of
thousands of Muslims arrived in the kingdom to perform one of the five
pillars of Islam. An estimated two million pilgrims, around two-thirds
of whom are from outside Saudi Arabia, will take part in the five-day
ritual that starts on March 3.
Saudi authorities, keen to ensure a Haj free from the tragedies of the
recent past, have spent more than $180 million this year to police the
event better and avoid stampedes. Improved facilities include
fireproof tents and water storage tunnels dug in mountains to help
fight fires. A blaze in 1997 killed 343 pilgrims, while up to 119
people died in a stampede in 1998. The last two years have witnessed a
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef yesterday toured the Makkah area
and inspected preparations for the pilgrimage. He told a news
conference after his tour that more than 1,160,000 pilgrims from
outside the kingdom have so far arrived by land, air and sea.
"Our aim that we hope will be achieved...is for them (pilgrims)
to perform the Haj smoothly and for them to return home safely,"
he said. "The security of the Haj until now is the best it could
be. Everything is excellent and our brothers the pilgrims are very
cooperative with us. We hope the Haj will continue at this level (of
security)," Prince Nayef said. The Haj is the fifth pillar of
Islam. It must be performed at least once in a lifetime by every
able-bodied Muslim who has the financial means. Muslims believe those
who perform it with a sincere heart will become as pure as the day
they were born.
"I am here to answer God's call and seek forgiveness for my
sins," Gamal, an Egyptian clad in a seamless white robe, told
Reuters after arriving at the international airport at the Red Sea
port city of Jeddah. Pilgrims usually arrive in Jeddah and are
transported on more than 13,000 buses to Makkah and Medina where
authorities have deployed thousands of doctors, police, cleaners and
postal workers to serve them.
Last year more than 1.73 million pilgrims performed the Haj, 1.26
million of whom came from abroad while the rest were Saudis or
foreigners residing in the kingdom. Officials say they expect a 15 per
cent increase in the number of pilgrims from abroad this year. The
Haj, which culminates with Eid Al Adha (Feast of Sacrifice), will
reach a climax on March 4 when prayers are said at Mount Arafat, the
site of Prophet Mohammad's (PBUH) last sermon 14 centuries ago.
The rituals include offering animal sacrifices and the meat is donated
to the needy in Muslim countries. Last year more than 637,000 sheep,
cattle and camels were slaughtered during Haj.