Plan to raise number of Hajj pilgrims to 5 million by 2020
ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia, Aug 20, (Agencies): More than two million Muslims gathered at Mount Arafat on Monday for a vigil to atone for their sins and ask God’s forgiveness as the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia reached its climax.
Pilgrims clad in white robes signifying a state of purity spent the night in an encampment around the hill where Islam holds that God tested Abraham’s faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gave his last sermon. Other worshippers praying in the nearby Mina area ascended in buses or on foot from before dawn as security forces directed traffic and helicopters and surveillance drones hovered overhead.
Some pilgrims carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun as temperatures surpassed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) after an evening of thunderstorms and high winds. Men and women from 165 countries gathered side by side, while soldiers handed out bottled water and some people snapped selfies. Pakistani pilgrim Mohamed Forqan, 30, said it was a great day to be a Muslim.
“Here in Arafat we feel that we are born today asking Allah to forgive our sins,” he said. Hilal Issa, 70, from Algeria, said he was praying for God to pardon all Muslims and save the Arab world from its afflictions.
Saudi Arabia has said more than 2.3 million pilgrims, mostly from outside Saudi Arabia, have arrived for the five-day ritual, a religious duty once in a lifetime for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey. The pilgrims will spend the day on Mount Arafat.
By sunset they will move to the rocky plain of Muzdalifa to gather pebbles to throw at stone columns symbolising the devil at another location called Jamarat on Tuesday, which marks the first day of Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice. A new kiswa, the cloth embroidered with verses from the Holy Quran, was placed over the Ka’aba in Makkah’s Grand Mosque late on Sunday. Pilgrims will return to pray there at the end of Hajj.
In a Hajj message, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, leader of Saudi- rival Iran, called for unity among Muslims as a defence against foreign enemies. “Muslims should be vigilant about America’s malicious war-mongering policy aimed at Muslims killing Muslims,” he said in comments read by a representative on Iranian television.
The United States reimposed economic sanctions on Iran this month after pulling out of a 2015 international deal aimed at curbing its nuclear programme in return for easing sanctions. Washington has said Tehran’s only chance of avoiding the sanctions would be to accept President Donald Trump’s offer to negotiate for a tougher nuclear deal, which Iranian officials have rejected.
In a midday sermon, senior Saudi cleric Sheikh Hussein bin Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh also urged pilgrims to come together with their co-religionists but cautioned: “Hajj is not a place for slogans and parties.” Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites – Makkah and Madinah – and organising the pilgrimage.
The world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims has in the past seen stampedes, fires and riots, with authorities sometimes struggling to respond. A crush in 2015 killed nearly 800 pilgrims, according to Riyadh, although counts by countries of repatriated bodies showed over 2,000 may have died, more than 400 of them Iranians. Officials say they have taken all necessary precautions this year, with tens of thousands of security forces and health workers on hand to maintain safety and provide first aid. Pilgrimage is also the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil.
The Hajj and year-round Umrah generate billions of dollars in revenue from worshippers’ lodging, transport, fees and gifts. Officials aim to increase the number of Umrah and Hajj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020, and hope to double the Umrah number again to 30 million by 2030. Arms raised, pilgrims repeated “There is no God but Allah” and “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). “The feeling is indescribable,” said Umm Ahmad, 61, who made the journey from Egypt.
Nearly 2.4 million Muslims made the trip to western Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, according to the kingdom’s statistics authority. Some of the pilgrims – men in white seamless garments and women in loose dresses – pushed elderly relatives in wheelchairs on the second day of the Hajj, one of the world’s largest annual gatherings. Jai Saleem, a 37-year-old Pakistani, said he cried when he and his wife arrived on Mount Arafat, where Muslims believe Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) delivered his final sermon. “It feels great,” he said. “I have always seen this area, since my childhood, in photographs and on television.” After sunset prayers, pilgrims will make their way down Mount Arafat to Muzdalifah, another holy site where they will sleep under the stars to prepare for the final stage of Hajj, a symbolic “stoning of the devil” ritual.
Buses could be seen parked around the hill as workers hurriedly picked up empty water bottles near a yellow sign that read “Arafat starts here” in both English and Arabic. “We know that it’s a difficult task,” said Amna Khan, a 35-yearold American Muslim pilgrim. “That’s why we are all here. We’re doing this to get closer to Allah, to be absolved.” A hot wind blew across the hill, also known as Jabal Al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy), and the surrounding plain after a downpour late Sunday. Many faithful could be seen sipping from bottles of water throughout the day. “I knew it would be a little hard to climb Mount Arafat,” said Nigerian pilgrim Saidou Boureima. “So I prepared for this challenge by working out. And God willing, we can see it through.” The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam which every Muslim is required to complete at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so. Muslims on Tuesday observe the first day of Eid Al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, which marks the end of the Hajj. They traditionally slaughter sheep for the three-day Eid Al-Adha, a tribute to the Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb after God spared Ishmael, his son. They will consume some of the meat and give the rest to poor people unable to buy food.