Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world yesterday began moving from Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca to nearby Mina for the start of the hajj, the world’s largest annual gathering.
Almost 2 million people are expected to take part in this year’s pilgrimage, undeterred by a crane collapse in Mecca earlier this month that killed 109 people and injured nearly 400 at Islam’s holiest site.
“It is a gift from God that He has chosen us to come here,” said Walaa Ali, a 35-year-old Egyptian pilgrim with tears in her eyes. “I am so happy to be here.”
Nearby, both men and women sat side by side listening to preachers explain the history and rituals of the hajj.
This year’s hajj begins against a backdrop of increased Muslim militant violence, a surge of the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and with Saudi Arabia at war in Yemen.
The first day of the hajj is known as the Day of Tarwiah, when pilgrims traditionally watered their animals and stocked water for their trip to Mount Arafat, about 10km southeast of Mina.
Nowadays, pilgrims spend their time there in prayer and reciting the Koran. The climax of the hajj season is on the Day of Arafah, which is today. With the start of the hajj, pilgrims enter ihram — a state of purity in which they must not wear perfume, cut their nails, or trim their hair or beards.
During ihram, men wear a seamless two-piece shroud-like white garment, which symbolizes resurrection and emphasizes unity regardless of social status or nationality.
Women must wear loose dresses exposing only their faces and hands.
They are following the 1,400-year-old tradition of the Prophet Mohammed.
The hajj is among the five pillars of Islam and every capable Muslim must perform the pilgrimage at least once in their life.
Previously marred by stampedes and fires that killed hundreds, it had been largely incident-free for the past decade after safety improvements.
However, on Sept. 11, a construction crane crashed into a courtyard of Mecca’s Grand Mosque during a severe storm.
Saudis, Iranians, Nigerians, Malaysians, Indonesians and Indians were among the dead.
Authorities said that they are on the alert for possible attacks by the extremist Islamic State group, which has carried out bombings targeting mosques in the kingdom in recent months.
Security forces have taken “measures to prevent terrorist groups from exploiting hajj season to carry out acts of sabotage,” Saudi Arabian Ministry of the Interior spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said.
The ministry said 100,000 police officers have been deployed to secure the hajj.
“We take all possibilities into consideration during hajj. This includes the kingdom being targeted by terrorist organizations,” al-Turki told reporters.
Saudi Arabia is also at war this year, leading an Arab coalition conducting air strikes and supporting local forces in Yemen against Iran-backed rebels since March.
Most Yemeni pilgrims taking part in the hajj this year are already residing in the kingdom.
Among other challenges facing Saudi Arabian authorities this year is potential transmission of the deadly MERS coronavirus.
The capital, Riyadh, saw a jump in infections last month.
However, Saudi Arabian health officials have insisted that so far no MERS infections have been recorded among pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia is the country worst affected by MERS, with 528 deaths since the virus appeared in 2012.
The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health has mobilized thousands of health workers to help ensure a virus-free pilgrimage.
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