Over 1.5m Muslims begin Haj under shadow of Gaza conflict

Published June 15, 2024
PILGRIMS carry umbrellas to shield themselves from intense heat as they arrive in Mina, on Friday.—AFP
PILGRIMS carry umbrellas to shield themselves from intense heat as they arrive in Mina, on Friday.—AFP

• 2,000 Palestinians performing the pilgrimage at special invitation of King Salman
• Pilgrims advised to drink water regularly, always carry umbrellas

MINA: More than one million Muslims packed a giant tented city near Makkah on Friday for the Haj in sweltering heat and against the grim backdrop of the Gaza conflict.

Robed worshippers arrived on buses or on foot, many shaded by umbrellas, at the vast encampment in Mina after performing tawaf — walking seven times around Kaaba at the Grand Mosque.

Chanting “God is great” and “God, we answer your call”, many were awash with spiritual fervour as they followed in the footsteps of the Holy Prophet’s (Peace be upon him) final pilgrimage nearly 1,400 years ago.

Participants, who numbered 1.5 million by Monday, have travelled from all parts of the world for the annual rites, this year held in intense heat with forecast daily highs of 44 degrees Celsius).

“It’s very, very hot,” said Fahad Azmar, 31, from Pakistan. “But I thank God for the opportunity to be here.”

They spent Friday night at Mina, a rocky valley several kilometres outside Makkah, before climbing Mount Arafat for the Haj’s climax on Saturday (today). Many worshippers were tightly packed inside as they sat and lay on narrow mattresses laid close to each other on the floor.

‘Carry an umbrella’

Outside, misting stations were installed to cool the faithful, and security guards splashed passers-by with water.

Most of the Haj is outdoors, but Saturday will be particularly testing for the pilgrims, when they spend most of the day praying on Mount Arafat.

Mohammed Al Abdulali, spokesperson for the Saudi health ministry, said this week there were more than 10,000 documented cases of heat-related illnesses last year, 10 per cent of which were heat stroke.

A text message sent to pilgrims on Thursday instructed them to “drink water regularly, more than two litres daily” and to “always carry an umbrella”, warning that temperatures could climb to 48 degrees Celsius.

Many pilgrims said they would pray for Pales­tinians in the Gaza Strip, more than eight months into the conflict that has left tens of thousands dead.

Zahra Benizahra, 78, from Morocco, could not hold back her tears as she described the “images of war, displaced people, dead children” that haunt her. “Our brothers are dying, and we can see it with our own eyes.”

Palestinian pilgrims

Some 2,000 Palestinians are performing the Haj at the special invitation of King Salman, official media said. However, the country’s minister in charge of religious affairs warned last week that “no political activity” would be tolerated.

The Haj, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be performed at least once by all Muslims who have the means to do so.

Some have waited for years for the chance to make the trip, with permits allocated by Saudi authorities on a quota basis for each country,

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2024

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