Thousands of pilgrims start arriving in Saudi Arabia for haj

Smart cards with a built-in tracking device will be vital to finding elderly or sick pilgrims lost while performing the rites.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Muslim pilgrims arrive at King Abdulaziz International Airport prior to the annual haj in the holy city of Mecca, July 7. (AFP)
Spiritual journey. Muslim pilgrims arrive at King Abdulaziz International Airport prior to the annual haj in the holy city of Mecca, July 7. (AFP)

LONDON - Planes carrying some of the first Muslim pilgrims of the haj season landed in Saudi Arabia as the country enters the holiest time on the Islamic calendar, when Muslims perform pilgrimage to Mecca.

The annual pilgrimage will draw as many as 140,000 Indian worshippers, 63,000 of whom are expected to arrive by July 21 and the remainder by August 5, Arab News reported. Pilgrims from India  arrived at Prince Mohammad bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Medina, where they were greeted by Ausaf Sayeed, India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Last year, more than 2.3 million pilgrims, overall, performed haj and this year’s season, which runs August 9-14, is expected to attract about 3 million faithful from around the world.

The steady growth of the gathering, owing to improving transportation and communication, makes it one of the largest logistical operations managed by the Ministry of Haj and Umrah. Authorities must ensure security, traffic control, transportation and accommodation infrastructure and various other services are ready for the pilgrims.

The latest innovation involves smart cards with a built-in tracking device that the ministry said would be distributed to 250,000 people in a pilot programme. The device will be vital to finding elderly or sick pilgrims lost while performing the rites.

Saudi Arabia said “all measures” would be taken against any attempt to politicise the haj.

Saudi Media Minister Turki al-Shabanah echoed that position in a statement issued July 10, emphasising the spiritual and religious nature of haj and called on pilgrims to look out for each other and to steer clear of attempts to disrupt the tranquillity of haj “through doctrinal and political slogans” or any “action.” He said “all necessary measures” would be taken against perpetrators, Al Riyadh reported.

Similar warnings are issued almost yearly by the government, religious officials and allies against acts of sabotage whipped up by Iran in pursuit of political ends.

Iran has attempted to use political arguments to challenge Saudi Arabi’s status as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites. Iran has also questioned the competency of haj authorities to improve the management of the world’s largest Muslim gathering.

In 2016, Iran insisted that visas to Iranian pilgrims be issued in Iran even in the absence on an agreement to that effect. Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati announced then that “Iranian pilgrims cannot go to haj this year.”

A similar government-led boycott drive that lasted 4 years occurred in 1987 following clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces in which 275 Iranians, 85 Saudi security personnel and 42 pilgrims of other nationalities were killed. A year prior to those clashes, Saudi security forces uncovered arms and explosives carried by Iranian pilgrims.

Records suggest the Iranian leadership and clerical class have officially encouraged the use of haj as a venue for protest. In the 1980s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called on pilgrims to stage demonstrations of “disavowal” against the Saudi monarchy.

Those acts led Saudi Arabia to lower the number of pilgrims granted entry from Iran to 1,000 for every 1 million residents, which an agreement reached last year overturned.

This year, some 86,550 Iranians will travel to Mecca to perform the religious pilgrimage.

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