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Wednesday, July 17, 2024  
10 Muharram 1446  

Million-plus take part in Hajj under shadow of Gaza crisis

Some 2,000 Palestinians are performing the Hajj at the special invitation of King Salman
Muslims arrive at the Mina tent camp during the annual Hajj pilgrimage near the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia on June 14, 2024. AFP
Muslims arrive at the Mina tent camp during the annual Hajj pilgrimage near the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia on June 14, 2024. AFP

Over one million Muslims packed the giant tented city of Mina near Makkah on Friday for the Hajj pilgrimage held in sweltering heat and against the grim backdrop of the Gaza crisis.

Robed worshippers arrived on buses or on foot, many shaded by umbrellas, at the vast encampment in Mina after performing the “tawaf” — the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the large cubic structure draped in black cloth with gold trimmings that millions of Muslims pray towards every day.

Chanting “God is great” and “God, we answer your call”, many were awash with spiritual fervour as they followed in the footsteps of the Holy Prophet’s (Peace Be Upon Him) final pilgrimage nearly 1,400 years ago.

Participants, who numbered 1.5 million by Monday, have travelled from all parts of the world for the annual rites, this year held in intense heat with forecast daily highs of 44 degree Celsius.

“It’s very, very hot,” said Fahad Azmar, 31, from Pakistan. “But I thank God for the opportunity to be here.”

They are spending the night at Mina, a rocky valley several kilometres outside Makkah, before climbing Mount Arafat for the Haj’s climax on Saturday.

Accommodation in Mina’s air-conditioned tents is organised by nationality and price, depending on how much each pilgrim paid for their Haj package.

Many worshippers were tightly packed inside as they sat and lay on narrow mattresses close to each other on the floor.

“There should be more space between the beds, and the air-conditioning doesn’t work very well … but the hajj is all about patience,” said Intisham al-Ahi, a 44-year-old Pakistani who was sharing a tent with dozens of his compatriots.

Elsewhere, a group of Moroccan pilgrims was growing angry, claiming to have been given a raw deal by the agent who booked their pilgrimage.

“There’s more people than are allowed in the tents … they’re asking us to share tents with people who paid half of what we spent,” fumed Hicham, who did not want to give his surname.

He said he paid about 17,000 euros for his trip.

‘Carry an umbrella’

Outside, misting stations were installed to cool the faithful, and security guards splashed passers-by with water.

Most of the Haj is outdoors but Saturday will be particularly testing for the worshippers, when they spend most of the day praying on Mount Arafat.

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 per cent of which were heat stroke.

A text message sent to pilgrims on Thursday instructed them to “drink water regularly, more than two litres daily” and to “always carry an umbrella”, warning that temperatures could climb to 48°C.

Many pilgrims said they would pray for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, more than eight months into the Israel-Hamas fighting that has left tens of thousands dead.

Zahra Benizahra, 78, from Morocco could not hold back her tears as she described the “images of war, displaced people, dead children” that haunt her.

“Our brothers are dying, and we can see it with our own eyes,” she 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”.

Palestinian pilgrims

The Gaza crisis was triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented attack on southern Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Hamas also seized 251 hostages. Of these, 116 remain in Gaza although the army says 41 of them are dead.

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Israel’s retaliatory offensive and bombardment in the Gaza Strip has killed at least 37,232 people, also mostly civilians, according to the health ministry.

Some 2,000 Palestinians are performing the Haj at the special invitation of King Salman, official media said.

However, the Gulf kingdom’s minister in charge of religious pilgrimages warned last week that “no political activity” will be tolerated.

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

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