FaithWorld

Pilgrims snub H1N1 flu and flock to Saudi Arabia

haj-flu (Photo: Palestinian pilgrim gets vaccinated in Gaza Strip, 6 Nov 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Standing in the middle of a long queue at Jeddah airport, Mahdi Sharif is one of millions of Muslims waiting to enter Saudi Arabia to start the annual haj pilgrimage despite a global outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

Little fazed by the spread of the virus, Sharif, who has been waiting for two years to be selected from a raffle of 5,000 Kurdish Iraqis to visit Mecca, wears a protection mask but never thought for a second of delaying his pilgrimage.

“This year I was chosen so I came, I could not say no. The happiness of being chosen is stronger than fear (of illness),” said Sharif in a muffled voice through his medical mask.

In June, the Saudi authorities advised persons over 65 and under 12, as well as people suffering from terminal illness, and pregnant women, to postpone their pilgrimage. Several Muslim countries also imposed similar restrictions on their pilgrims and Tunisia barred its citizens from this year’s ritual.

About 580,000 pilgrims have so far arrived to the Western region of Saudi Arabia, site of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, in preparation for the pilgrimage that will start on November 26.

Health experts say haj pilgrims risk H1N1 flu wave

grand-mosque-mecca2

Waves of H1N1 swine flu spread by some three million pilgrims travelling to and from Mecca for next month’s haj threaten to pile pressure on healthcare systems around the world, disease experts said on Thursday.

“No region can be considered free from risk,” said the U.S. and Arab experts, including Saudia Arabia’s deputy minister for preventative medicine, in a study in the journal Science.  The pilgrimage itself, in the last week of November, provides perfect conditions for the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, which is transmitted in droplets and by physical contact.

“The density of pilgrims, the nature of the rituals, and the shoulder-to-shoulder contact recommended during prayers provide a perfect transmission atmosphere,” wrote Shahul Ebrahim of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Ziad Memish of Saudi Arabia’s health ministry.

Vatican ruling on disputed Medjugorje shrine expected soon

medjugorje-statueHas the Virgin Mary been appearing daily for many years in the once obscure Bosnian village of Medjugorje to share religious messages with a few local believers? Is the site visited by over 30 million pilgrims a hoax? The question has long divided Catholics who have debated whether the visions are a modern-day miracle, wishful thinking or the result of an elaborate fraud. (Photo: Virgin Mary statue at reported apparition site, 25 June 2009/Damir Sagolj)

After observing events sceptically for many years, the Vatican may soon issue firmer guidance for Catholics on the claim that the mother of Jesus has been visiting the Balkans, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, head of the bishops’ conference in Bosnia, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday. That guidance, if it clearly expresses the scepticism the official Church has long shown towards the Medjugorje phenomenon, could deal a serious blow to a site some Catholics see as a “new Lourdes.”

“We are now awaiting a new directive on this issue,” said Puljic, the Sarajevo archbishop who survived the city’s long wartime siege in the 1990s. “I don’t think we must wait for a long time, I think it will be this year, but that is not clear… I am going to Rome in November and we must discuss this.”

Swine flu fears hit religious tourism to Saudi Arabia

mecca-boymecca-minaretsStanding behind a wall of pearls and prayer beads in a shop in Mecca, souvenir dealer Mohammad Hamdi says business has never been so bad.  Shops, hotels and tour operators in Islam’s holiest city in western Saudi Arabia are counting the losses as many pilgrims, worried about swine flu, stay at home.

The haj, one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings, is still two months away but there has already been a marked fall in visitors for the minor pilgrimage known as umra, which can be done at any time of the year.

“In previous years people were buying a lot but now only a few come which is hitting sales,” said Hamdi, from Egypt. Hotel occupancy rates during the last ten days of the fasting month of Ramadan, when many perform umra, fell by more than a third to 55 percent compared to last year, said Walid Abu Sabaa, head of the tourism and hotels committee at the Mecca chamber of commerce.

PAPA DIXIT:Pope’s words at mosque, Moses mount, Madaba

pope-ghaziPope Benedict’s long-awaited address to Muslims at the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque topped the day’s list of speeches. It dominated our news coverage today. He also spoke at Mount Nebo, where the Bible says Moses glimpsed the Promised Land before dying, and at a ceremony to bless the cornerstone of a Catholic university being built in Madaba. The mosque and Madaba speeches were classic Ratzinger, with some of his trademark theological and philosophical arguments. If he had delivered the mosque speech at Regensburg, there might never have been a “Regensburg.” Benedict ended the day with a short sermon at vespers in the Greek-Melkite Cathedral of Saint George. (Photo: Pope Benedict and Prince Ghazi tour the mosque, 9 May 2009/Tony Gentile)

Here are excerpts from today’s speeches.

THE MOSQUE SPEECH

UNITE TO DEFEND RELIGION: “We cannot fail to be concerned that today, with increasing insistency, some maintain that religion fails in its claim to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony, an expression of communion between persons and with God. Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better. Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied. However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society? In the face of this situation, where the opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own, the need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly. Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”

PAPA DIXIT: Pope Benedict’s quotes on plane, in Amman

pope-plane-romePope Benedict plans to speak publicly at least 29 times during his May 8-15 trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Apart from covering the main points in our news reports, we also plan to post excerpts from his speeches in a FathWorld series called “Papa dixit” (“the pope said”). (Photo: Pope Benedict leaves Rome for Amman, 8 May 2009/Max Rossi)

Following are comments from the first day, on the plane and in Amman. The pope spoke Italian on the plane but will deliver all his speeches here in English.

COMMENTS ON THE PLANE (Reuters translation from Italian):

MIDEAST PEACE: “Certainly I will try to make a contribution to peace, not as an individual but in the name of the Catholic Church , of the Holy See. We are not a political power but a spiritual force and this spiritual force is a reality which can contribute to progress in the peace process … As believers we are convinced that that prayer is a real force, it opens the world to God. We are convinced that God listens and can affect history and I think that if millions of believers pray it really is a force that has influence and can make a contribution to moving ahead with peace.”

Pope Benedict on “haj” in Jordan

haj-1Sitting through a media briefing in Amman on Pope Benedict’s visit to Jordan starting on Friday, I whiled away the news-free parts trying to decipher the Arabic writing on the official logo (photo at right). I never fully mastered the Arabic alphabet or the Urdu language (which uses it) during my time in Pakistan over 20 years ago. But some hard-won bits of linguistic trivia remain stuck in the brain and come in handy at the most unexpected moments.

With some effort on my part, that arc of Arabic calligraphy up top revealed itself as saying al-haj al-babawi. The haj of baba … hmmm… Arabic has no “p,” so that could be the haj of papa. The Italians call him papa, so it must be talking about the pope and saying the pope’s haj. Huh? The pope’s haj?

Of course, the word haj simply means “pilgrimage” in Arabic. Western languages have taken it over as the specific term for the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But the pope has a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to get there. Haj means pilgrimage, no more and no less, and it describes the pope’s visit just the same way as he does in the words of the many western languages he speaks.

Jordan amasses evidence for claiming Jesus baptism site

bethany-pool-2 (Photo: Bethany baptismal pool with ruins of ancient basilicas in rear, a staircase to the water and, at right, two of the four massive pillars that used to hold a church above the baptism site, 6 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)

In John’s Gospel, verse 1:28, it says that John the Baptist used to baptise people in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” and Jesus went there for his own baptism. Seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, “beyond the Jordan” means on the river’s east bank, in present-day Jordan. Those words were added to distinguish that Bethany from the village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have raised Lazarus from the dead. Despite that, pilgrims have long visited a spot on the river’s west bank, now in an Israeli military zone in the Palestinian territories, and considered it the true site where Jesus was baptised.

bethany-flagFor about a decade or so, Jordan has been contesting that claim with excavations at a site on the river’s east bank that it argues must be the real place. Following John’s Gospel (the others only speak of the river itself) and descriptions from pilgrims dating back to the fourth to twelfth centuries, Jordanian archeologists have uncovered ruins of five ancient churches and a wide array of other remains and artifacts pointing to the area’s use as a pilgrimage site. (Photo: Israeli flag on west bank across Jordan River and Greek Orthodox church on the east bank Bethany site, 6 May 2009//Jamal Saidi)

Pope John Paul’s visit to Bethany in 2000 was a coup for Jordan, which is keen to establish its site as a major centre for Christian pilgrims. But he also slipped in a quick visit to Qasr al Yahud, the west bank site across the river, to avoid any impression of partiality. Pope Benedict doesn’t seem to have the same concern — he’s coming to Bethany only and not planning any stop at the rival site. See our news story on this here.

Religion or vote? Iraq Shi’ites wrestle with choice

Thousands of Shi’ite Muslims in southern Iraq are wrestling with a choice of religion or democracy before a pilgrimage which may prevent them from voting in elections to provincial councils on Saturday.

Pilgrims from the southern city of Basra are setting out on an arduous walk hundreds of km (miles) long to the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala, far from the election centres where they are registered to vote. The pilgrimage for Arbain, or 40 days of mourning for the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein slain in battle at Kerbala in the 7th century, culminates in mid-February. (Photo: Pilgrims in Kerbala for Arbain, 27 Feb 2008/Mohammed Ameen)

“Kerbala is more important than voting, and so far I haven’t seen any candidate that deserves my confidence. I still have no job after the last election,” said Mohammed Ali, one of a group of pilgrims at a roadside tent.

Time for trains to help pilgrims perform the haj

(Photo: Pilgrims on the plains of Arafat, 7 Dec 2008/Saudi Press Agency)

Muslims taking part in the annual haj pilgrimage often say they have no words to describe the spiritual experience they have. Their practical struggles with the logistics are another thing altogether.

Many multi-billion-dollar improvements have been carried out over the past few years to improve safety for  pilgrims, expand the Grand Mosque and build tent cities in several areas where pilgrims have to stay for a day or more. The logistics of the haj are the main challenge that both pilgrims and the organizers face during the few days in which pilgrims are required to travel back and forth to several places to perform the rituals. There have been stampedes, fires and other accidents in the past as Muslims from around the world answered the call made by the Prophet Mohammad more than 1,400 years ago.

The benefits were clear at this year’s haj, in which over two million pilgrims have taken part without any major incident. There is still room for improvement, though, and my preference is for a train system to help pilgrims get around to perform the rituals tracking the Prophet’s steps.