Muslims gather in Mecca for annual haj
LONDON - Muslim pilgrims from across the world are gathering in Mecca for the annual haj, with safety precautions dominating authorities’ agenda ahead of the annual pilgrimage.
The haj is Islam’s fifth pillar; a ritual Muslims should perform at least once in their lifetime. Muslims believe successfully completing the pilgrimage, usually over five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar, gives the worshipper a place in paradise.
As of August 31st, 866,633 pilgrims had arrived in Saudi Arabia, the majority of whom travelled by air; 26,525 pilgrims went by land and another 9,465 made their way by sea, according to the Saudi General Directorate of Passports.
The haj in 2015 was marred by a number of tragic incidents. Two weeks before the pilgrimage started, a crane in the Grand Mosque in Mecca collapsed in heavy winds, killing 107 people. That was followed by the deadliest stampede in haj history. Saudi officials said it led to the death of more than 700 pilgrims. However, independent estimates put the death toll at more than 2,000.
Because of the stampede, one of the main rituals of the haj will be under tighter control. The symbolic stoning of the devil will have a set schedule, according to the Ministry of Haj, and will no longer be a 24- hour affair, local media reported.
The Saudi Director-General of Civil Defence Lieutenant-General Suleiman bin Abdullah al-Amr said the agency had completed security preparations for the haj season and that the comprehensive emergency plan prepared after last year’s events was in place. Head of Haj Preparatory Committee Hisham al- Falih has inspected all haj-related sites in Mecca, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
More than 17,000 security personnel will be participating in this year’s haj, with thousands of others from the kingdom’s Civil Defence on standby.
The Saudi branch of the Red Crescent (SRCA) has allocated eight air ambulances for the transportation of sick pilgrims and for use in case of serious emergencies.
According to the Saudi Gazette, the SRCA has deployed 2,459 members of its staff in Mecca, Medina and other holy sites to provide services to pilgrims.