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Spiritual leaders from Russia's large minority of Muslims asked President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday to press Saudi Arabia to increase the number of worshippers allowed to perform the annual Haj pilgrimage. Almost three million Muslims flock to Mecca every year for Haj, a duty every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must perform at least once in their lifetime. Riyadh allocates quotas for Muslims around the world.
Russia, home to 20 million Muslims, or around one seventh of the population, is allowed to send 20,000 Muslims a year for Haj, Mufti Ismail Berdiyev told Medvedev. They were attending a meeting with other Muslim leaders in Kabardino-Balkaria's capital Nalchik in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus.
"So many people want to go. Maybe you could bring this up in talks with Saudi Arabia?" asked Berdiyev, who heads the Muslim community in Karachay-Cherkessia, not far from Nalchik.
The Saudi holy city of Mecca is proving to be the exception to a Middle East property downturn, as more and more pilgrims flock to Islam's holiest city and fuel a hotel construction boom. The more than 2.5 million pilgrims who flock to Mecca for the annual Haj pilgrimage, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, are witnessing a transformation of the city's skyline with luxury hotels, high-rise residential blocks and cranes now overlooking the Grand Mosque.
(Photo: Haj pilgrims arrive to cast stones at pillars symbolising Satan in Mena, November 16, 2010/Mohammed Salem)
Saudi Arabia's religious police keep such a low profile during the haj, it's hard to imagine that you are in Islam's holiest city.
The kingdom, where Islam first emerged around 1,400 years ago, applies a strict form of Sunni Islamic sharia law that imposes gender segregation, forces shops to close during prayer times and prohibits women from driving.
(Photo: Haj pilgrims at the Plains of Arafat, 15 Nov 2010/Mohammed Salem)
Millions of Muslims gathered around Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammad delivered his last sermon, to beg for God's forgiveness on Monday, the spiritual climax of the annual haj pilgrimage. Pilgrims flocked mostly on foot to Arafat, a rocky outcrop in a dusty plain a few kilometers away from Mecca, to pray until sunset. They set up tents where they could, squatted on the side of the road in shelters or stayed at the nearby Namira mosque.
A record of at least 2.5 million pilgrims have come to Saudi Arabia to perform this year's haj, one of the world's biggest displays of mass religious devotion. So far, the authorities have reported none of the major problems or disasters that marred the event in previous years, such as building collapses and deadly stampedes caused by overcrowding.
Hoping to decrease accidents and boost tourism, Saudi has built a railway line to improve transport for millions of Muslims who flock to the kingdom on the annual haj and move en masse from one holy site to another. At least 2.5 million pilgrims are expected to perform the haj, which began on Sunday. One of the world's biggest religious gatherings, it has been marred in the past by stampedes, accidents and political demonstrations. (Photo: Haj pilgrims in Mina, near Mecca, November 14, 2010/Fahad Shadeed)
Authorities say the 6.6 billion riyal ($1.76 billion) project will lessen congestion of the pilgrim route swollen with
some 70,000 cars and buses jamming the roads. The railway is the first such project in more than half a century in the world's top oil exporter. It will ferry pilgrims around holy sites outside Mecca to perform rites such as the "devil's stoning", when pilgrims stone a wall in ritual defiance of the devil and temptation.
(Photo: Pilgrims at Mena, near Mecca, November 14, 2010/Mohammed Salem)
At least 2.5 million Muslims began the annual haj pilgrimage on Sunday, heading to an encampment near the holy city of Mecca to retrace the route taken by the Prophet Mohammad 14 centuries ago.
Traveling on foot, by public transport and in private cars, the pilgrims will stream through a mountain pass to a valley at Mina, some three km (two miles) outside Mecca. The path is the same as the Prophet himself took on his last pilgrimage.
Sitting in the marble lobby of a luxury hotel in Mecca, Moroccan bank director Mohammad Hamdosh gets a breather from the cacophony of pilgrims bustling around the Grand Mosque in Islam's holiest city. Millions have flocked to the city in Saudi Arabia for the annual haj pilgrimage, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. But some can afford more than others, and a controversial construction boom is catering to their needs.
"Every pilgrim comes according to his means. God gave me money, so why shouldn't I stay in this hotel?" says Hamdosh, on a trip that has cost him 12,000 Euros ($16,545). "Haj is tiring so it's good to have a room to rest."
(Photo: Muslims shop outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, September 15, 2009/Fahad Shadeed)
Rashed Abdullah displays Oriental perfumes on a glass table to late-night shoppers in his small shop in Mecca ready for what he hopes will be a sales bonanza during this month's haj pilgrimage. He is confident of attracting customers after fears of a swine flu outbreak kept many away last year.
"This year will be the best. There is really strong demand," he said, standing behind an incense collection in one of dozens souvenir shops around the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
A giant clock on a skyscraper in Islam's holiest city Mecca began ticking on Wednesday at the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, amid hopes by Saudi Arabia that it will become the Muslim world's official timekeeper.
The Mecca Clock, which Riyadh says is the world's largest, has four faces each bearing a large inscription of the name "Allah." It sits 400 metres up what will be the world's second-tallest skyscraper and largest hotel, overlooking the city's Holy Grand Mosque, which Muslims around the world turn to five times a day for prayer.
An imam whose voice helped him become the first black Saudi to lead prayers at Mecca's Grand Mosque said he was wrong to speak against a fatwa prohibiting singing, in the latest spat between reformist and conservative clerics in the kingdom.
King Abdullah's push for reform has fostered divisions among senior Saudi clerics, and Adil Kalbani shocked conservative clerics in June by speaking in favor of singing, saying neither the Koran nor Prophet Mohammad's sayings prohibited it.