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Saudi Arabia gears up for Muslim pilgrimage
Makkah, 26 February 2001

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 trouble-free Haj.

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 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.

SOURCE: Gulf News

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26 February 2001 06:45:50 PM

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