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Saudi Arabia: For Muslims, This Is The Season Of Hajj

All over the world some 2 million Muslims are now preparing to gather at Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia on March 4 for the climactic fifth day of the Hajj -- the pilgrimage required at least once in the lifetimes of all able-bodied Muslims. The Hajj is a complex rite, with traditions established in the time of the prophet Mohammad 14 centuries ago. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill says it also is complicated by modern politics and logistics.

Prague, 22 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Faithful Muslims everywhere in the world are turning their thoughts in the days ahead to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This is the season of the Hajj.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam -- that is, one of the five religious duties of the faithful. Islam requires every able Muslim, as an article of faith, to make a pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime to Mecca, to the Jamrah Al-Aqabah, the House of Allah, on nearby Mount Arafat.

Mecca is Mohammad's birthplace. Mount Arafat is where he preached his last sermon.

The former communist nations of the Soviet Union with large Muslim populations -- including Russia, itself, and the countries of Central Asia -- considered the Hajj a threat and sought to control it.

But with the collapse of communism, national restrictions on the Hajj gradually have faded. In addition, population increases within the fastest growing religion on earth have swelled the number of potential pilgrims to around 1 billion, second only to the number of Christians.

Kimsanbay Abdrachmanov, mufti of Kyrgyzstan's Muslims, is an expert on Islam in Central Asia. He says that in the late years of communism, only 345 mosques existed throughout the vast expanse of Central Asia. Now there are more than 2,000 in Kyrgyzstan alone.

"Ample opportunity exists now for Islam to develop. In Kyrgyzstan, Muslims perceive Kyrgyz customs and traditions as identical with Islamic customs and traditions. In Kyrgyzstan's culture today, Islam is flowering."

Mufti Abdrachmanov says communist governments throughout Central Asia placed severe controls on Islamic practices, including the Hajj. Only after former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika -- that is, restructuring -- in the mid-1980s did Islam begin to re-emerge from the shadows of state atheism.

"For example, in one year in the early 1980s only 24 people from the Soviet Union carried out the pilgrimage, including those who managed it while nominally visiting friends or relatives abroad. This year more than 1,000 people from Kyrgyzstan alone are going on Hajj. People going on the pilgrimage by bus left on February 12 and by airplane on February 20."

Saudi Arabian officials say they have spent the equivalent of $187 million in preparation for 2 million or more pilgrims they expect this year. They've spent some of that money on fireproof tents, water storage tunnels, and other infrastructure after a 1997 fire killed 343 pilgrims and 119 people died the following year in a stampede.

Inflated transportation costs inhibit many would-be pilgrims. Kyrgyzstan's mufti says many more than 1,000 pilgrims would make the trip this year if they could afford it. Some governments subsidize pilgrims and Saudi Arabia itself has provided grants to help them, but many believers are left to cover the costs of the pilgrimage on their own.

Tajikistan is sending fewer pilgrims on Hajj this year -- only about 1,000 -- than it did at the peak of the post-communist religious resurgence. This is partly because of rising transportation costs and partly because of difficulties in crossing the Uzbek and Turkmen borders. Many Tajik pilgrims chose this year to fly from their capital Dushanbe to Mashhad in northeastern Iran and then from there go on to Saudi Arabia.

Andusator Shohidov, who sent his father on Hajj this year, tells our correspondent that flying is simpler:

"It has become more convenient to go by air. You avoid the problems at the borders."

Still, the number of would-be pilgrims now exceeds Saudi Arabia's ability to absorb the influx. Each year, the country issues quotas of 1,000 visas for every one million people. Determined pilgrims sometimes go to great lengths to acquire a visa.

Earlier this week, security officials at Cairo airport arrested an Egyptian woman trying to smuggle 114 passports to Germany. Officials said the passport owners paid her large sums to carry them to Frankfurt, where they believed entry visas would be easier to obtain from the Saudi consulate.

Another potential logistical problem is the availability of huge numbers of livestock -- sheep, cattle, and camels -- for slaughtering. Muslims have the religious duty to offer living sacrifices and donate the meat to the needy. Last year, pilgrims on the Hajj slaughtered some 637,000 animals.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Tajik services contributed to this report).