Egyptians ecstatic about journey to Mecca

Sunday 04/09/2016
Egyptian pilgrims at the Cairo International Airport on August 25th, 2016, on their way to the annual haj in the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Cairo - Like hundreds of thousands of other Muslims at airports around the world, Egyptian pilgrims have been saying their farewells at Cairo air­port before leaving for Saudi Arabia to perform the haj in the tradition, they believe, of the Prophet Mo­hammad and Abraham before him.
Every year tens of thousands of Egyptians apply for visas to travel to Mecca to join more than 2.5 mil­lion Muslims from across the world at the pilgrimage.
“When I was chosen, I couldn’t believe it,” said Afaf Hasan Rifai, who was selected by Egypt’s author­ities to perform the haj to start early in September.
“I started crying and I prostrated to God,” she said, her beaming hus­band standing next to her outside the terminal late on August 26th.
Nearby a policeman pushed a wheelchair carrying an elderly woman with a cane into the termi­nal.
Every Muslim who can undertake the journey is expected to perform the pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime but it can also be per­formed on behalf of another follow­er of the faith who is unable to do so.
Muslims have travelled to Mecca for the haj since the seventh centu­ry, when they say that God ordained it in the Quran.
Last year, more than 2,200 pil­grims — among them 464 Iranians and 182 Egyptians — died in a stam­pede at the haj, according to tallies from foreign officials. The official death toll from the Saudi govern­ment was 760.
It was the deadliest stampede in haj history and fuelled historic ten­sions between conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia and its regional rival, Shia Iran.
Saudi authorities announced new security measures for the haj this year, including electronic bracelets and a reduced period for the stoning ritual during which the deaths took place.
Over the centuries, the ritual — seen as an elusive moment of Mus­lim unity gathering all nationalities and classes — has not been spared the vicissitudes of the region.
There was the time when the Qar­matians, a sanguinary sect that con­trolled present-day Bahrain in the tenth century, descended on Mecca to put an end to what they viewed as superstition.
They killed thousands of pilgrims and made off with the sacred Black Stone of the Kaaba, breaking it into several pieces before ransoming it to the Abbasid caliphate.
In 1979, apocalyptic jihadists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held pilgrims hostage before special forces flushed them out.
Many pilgrims, especially the el­derly, have died amid the massive crowds while performing the rites.
Still, many Muslims still dream of going — even those who have al­ready made repeated pilgrimages, such as 93-year-old Salem Ibrahim Rahmo.
“I’m happy as can be,” said the white-turbaned Rahmo as he wait­ed outside the Cairo airport termi­nal. “To visit the Prophet (his tomb and mosque in Medina), this is the greatest happiness. And to visit the Kaaba. This is my third time.”
His son, Rahmo Mohamed Ibra­him, said “everyone” would seize the chance to perform the haj if al­lowed.
“Every person wishes to visit the houses of God and to perform the pilgrimage and fulfil his obligation,” said Ibrahim, 53.
The rituals, believed to date to the time of Abraham — whom Muslims say built the original Kaaba as the first house of worship — begins Sep­tember 9th and lasts for six days.
Men will wear seamless white clothes and women modest Islamic garb and circumambulate the Kaaba seven times. They will walk between two neighbouring hills seven times, emulating Abraham’s wife Hajar’s search for water, then symbolically cast stones at the devil.
The cathartic ritual, which pil­grims believe cleanses them of sin, is “spiritual bliss”, said Ibrahim.
“There is nothing better than this,” he said.
Hamas announced that Egypt has opened its border crossing with the Gaza Strip for three days, allowing hundreds of Muslim faithful to trav­el for a yearly pilgrimage.
Hesham Edwan, the director of the Rafah crossing, said on August 30th that nearly 2,500 people were expected to leave in the coming days.
Rafah is Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world. Egypt has kept Rafah largely sealed since 2013, when ties with Hamas worsened af­ter the ouster of Egypt’s elected Is­lamist president Muhammad Morsi. Cairo accuses the Islamic militant group, which rules Gaza, of support­ing militants in the Sinai Peninsula, allegations denied by Hamas.

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