Haj pilgrims flock to Mount Arafat to beg forgiveness

November 15, 2010

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(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.

But the sheer number of pilgrims was still a worry for the Saudi government. Around 100,000 security forces have been deployed to the oversee the pilgrimage, security officials said.

“I thank God for sending me to haj but it’s really difficult with so many people here and the heat,” Mohammed Ramzi, a pilgrim from Egypt, said as he cooled off under one of thousands of water sprinklers erected by the authorities against temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius. “I’ve just lost a friend in the crowd … but God will give me the strength to perform haj despite the difficulties.”

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(Photo: Haj pilgrims at the Plains of Arafat, 15 Nov 2010/Mohammed Salem)

“Haj is difficult with the crowds and heat but God will help us,” said Abdulrahman Kado, a pilgrim from Nigeria.

“I praise God for this haj. But it is very difficult this year with so many people. I am a bit worried about the crowds, but I trust in God. It’s very hot but thankfully I have this umbrella,” said Mohammed Idam, a Yemeni labourer from Sanaa. He had an umbrella given to him by a Saudi telco that is handing them out for free to pilgrims.

Helicopters hovered in the air to monitor the stream of pilgrims, while police officers cleared the way for buses on roads thronged with pedestrians, many carrying umbrellas to shield themselves against the sun. Some devotees prostrated themselves in prayer wherever they stood, even on cardboard laid out on the pavement.

“Give way, pilgrim, don’t stand in the way,” policemen told the crowds.

Saudi authorities have made renovations over the past few years to ease the flow of pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque and the disaster-prone Jamarat Bridge that most pilgrims will cross on Tuesday to stone a set of walls. The ritual represents defiance of the devil and commitment to resisting temptation and is the most dangerous part of the haj. In January 2006, 362 people were crushed to death there.

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(Photo: Haj pilgrims at the Plains of Arafat, 15 Nov 2010/Mohammed Salem)

This year the authorities inaugurated a Chinese-built train — part of a $1.8 billion railway project — to carry pilgrims from site to site and ease congestion on the roads.

The five-day haj marks sites that Islamic tradition says the Prophet Ibrahim — biblical patriarch Abraham — visited in Mecca and that Prophet Mohammad established as a pilgrim route 14 centuries ago after removing pagan idols from Mecca.

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