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Middle East: Hajj Reaching Climax Under Tight Security Measures

Animals will be sacrificed to mark Eid Al-Adha As many as 3 million Muslims from all over the world are participating in the annual hajj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam. Early today, the pilgrims started their journey to Mount Arafat, a holy site near Mecca, from the tent city of Mina, where they spent yesterday in prayer and meditation. The Saudi authorities have deployed a record 50,000 security personnel to secure the safety of the pilgrims.

19 January 2005 -- The hajj pilgrimage reaches its climax today with the ascension up Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have given his last sermon.

The pilgrims will spend several hours praying and meditating on the hill and asking for forgiveness.
Up to 3 million Muslims from 70 countries are participating in the hajj, which take place over five days.

Faisal Ali, an editor with "Arab News," the main Saudi English-language daily, spoke to RFE/RL from Mount Arafat today. He says that, despite the huge crowds of pilgrims, everything has been going smoothly so far: "Here at this time in Arafat, we are witnessing an unexpected [number of] people, an unexpected rush. Last year, the number of pilgrims was about 2 million, but this time it has exceeded 3 million. So you can understand the situation and the pressure on the logistics of Arafat, Mina, and Muzdalifah (eds: where the pilgrims collect stones for the stoning-of-the-devil ritual)."

The pilgrims began the hajj rituals yesterday by performing the tawaf, which includes reciting prayers and circling seven times around the Kaaba, a cubic stone structure in Mecca that Muslims turn to for their five daily prayers.

The hajj is taking place under tight security measures amid fears of possible terrorist attacks. The new measures are also designed to prevent stampedes, fires, and other accidents that have killed hundreds of pilgrims in past years.

Ali says the security measures are massive: "About 50,000 security personnel have been deployed, plus 10,000 reservists have been put on standby. There are 5,000 police vehicles going around the clock, and three [helicopters] are hovering over our heads. About 10 helicopters have been put into service to keep an eye on the moving pilgrims and to prevent any incidents. Security is impregnable, and there is no sense of fear as far as pilgrims are concerned. And everybody is busy in praying and reading the holy Koran."

Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Mansour al-Turki has warned that "terrorists" in Saudi Arabia still have the ability to launch attacks. But he said security forces have been able to reduce their activities.

Pilgrims will perform the three-day ritual known as the stoning of the devil tomorrow. Some 250 pilgrims were trampled to death during this part of the hajj in 2004.

This year, Ali says, Saudi officials have put into place new measures to prevent the stampede of crowds: "They have widened the road, and this time one notable change is that the columns which symbolize the devil have been increased [in width and height], and people can throw stones -- the symbolic stoning of the devil -- they can do from [farther away]."

A foot bridge leading to the pillars has also been expanded and includes two new emergency exits.

Up to 3 million Muslims from 70 countries are participating in the hajj, which take place over five days. Going on the hajj is mandatory for every adult Muslim who is physically and financially able to perform the rituals.

After the first day of the stoning ritual, pilgrims will sacrifice animals to mark Eid Al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice, which is celebrated by Muslims around the world.

(compiled from wire reports)

See also:

"The Hajj (Part 1) -- A Look At The History, Rituals, And Meaning Of The Pilgrimage"

"The Hajj (Part 2) -- Increasing Numbers Of Younger Pilgrims Are Making The Journey"

"The Hajj (Part 3) -- Complaints Of Bribery, Corruption, Price-Gouging Taint Religious Pilgrimage"

"The Hajj (Part 4) -- Pilgrims Dismiss Terror Fears Amid Saudi Security Deployment"