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Million-plus begin Hajj pilgrimage in searing heat

By AFP

June 14, 2024 09:56 AM


Pilgrims offer Fajr prayers around the Holy Kaaba ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.–AFP

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More than a million pilgrims were in Makkah Friday for the start of Hajj pilgrimage held against the grim backdrop of the Gaza conflict and in exhausting summer heat.

Crowds of robed worshippers will circle the Holy Kaaba, the black cubic structure at Makkah's Grand Mosque, and are arriving in tent city of Mina with many expressing sadness eight months into the Israel-Hamas war.

"Our brothers are dying, and we can see it with our own eyes," a tearful 75-year-old Zahra Benizahra from Morocco told AFP.

Belinda Elham of Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, said she would "pray every day so that what's happening in Palestine ends".

Saudi King Salman issued a decree on Monday to host 1,000 pilgrims "from the families of martyrs and the wounded from the Gaza Strip", bringing to 2,000 the number of Palestinian pilgrims to be given the special honour at this year's Hajj, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

However, the Gulf kingdom's minister in charge of religious pilgrimages, Tawfiq al-Rabiah, warned last week that "no political activity" will be tolerated, and it was unclear how pilgrims might express solidarity with the Palestinians.

- 'Drink water regularly' -

The Hajj, one of the world's largest religious gatherings, involves a series of rituals in Makkah and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia that take several days to complete.

One of the five pillars of Islam, it must be performed at least once by all Muslims who have the means to do so.

After travelling from all parts of the globe to Islam's holiest city, the pilgrims will first perform the "tawaf" –- circling seven times around the Holy Kaaba.

They will then head towards Mina, a valley surrounded by craggy mountains several kilometres outside Makkah, where they will spend the night in air-conditioned tents.

The climax will come on Saturday with day-long prayers on Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) delivered his final sermon.

Pilgrims in white garments have already been circling the Holy Kaaba in large numbers for several days.

Some have waited for years for the chance to make the trip, with permits allocated by Saudi authorities on a quota basis for each country.

Nonaartina Hajipaoli, 50, told AFP she felt privileged to be among the 1,000 pilgrims who came this year from Brunei in Southeast Asia. "I'm speechless, I can't describe what I feel," she said.

Last year's Hajj drew more than 1.8 million pilgrims, according to official figures, after authorities lifted pandemic-era restrictions and scrapped age limits.

About 1.5 million had arrived by late Monday for this year's Hajj, official media said.

As has been the case for several years, the gathering falls this year during the hot Saudi summer, with officials predicting average highs of 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit).

Mohammed al-Abdulali, spokesperson for the Saudi health ministry, told AFP this week there were more than 10,000 documented cases of heat-related illnesses last year, 10 percent of which were heat stroke.

Mitigation measures this year include misting systems and heat-reflective road coverings.

A text message sent to pilgrims on Thursday instructed them to "drink water regularly, more than 2 litres daily" and to "always carry an umbrella", warning that temperatures could climb to 48 degrees Celsius.


AFP


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