MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – Some 1.7 million Muslim pilgrims will begin Friday the annual hajj rituals in the holy city of Mecca amid tightened security measures.
Gathered in this city in the west of the kingdom, the pilgrims will in the early hours of Friday set out on foot or by bus for Mina, an arid valley 10 kilometres (six miles) from here, marking the start of the hajj.
They will spend the day in prayer and meditation in Mina, which has been transformed into a site of fireproof tents.
Before dawn on Saturday, the faithful will move towards Mount Arafat, a revered place in Islam, for the culmination of the hajj, symbolising the Final Judgement at the scene of the Prophet Mohammed’s last sermon 14 centuries ago.
The pilgrims will then return to Mina to sacrifice an animal, generally sheep, marking Eid al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice, celebrated on Sunday.
They will spend two more days in Mina to take part in a symbolic stoning of the devil.
Saudi security forces, who have warned they will not tolerate any attempt to undermine security during the hajj, have imposed strict controls on access to the Mecca region, meticulously searching cars and turning back all those without the proper authorisation.
The precise number of pilgrims has not been published, while Thursday is the last day for residents of the kingdom to secure authorisation to take part in this year’s pilgrimage, according to Hajj officials.
Immigration chief Abdul Aziz bin Jamil Sajini said Wednesday that “1.39 million Muslims coming from overseas arrived in the kingdom until Tuesday evening.”
Hajj Minister Iyad Madani had said on Monday that 1.2 million faithful had arrived from abroad and would be joined by some “250,000 pilgrims from inside the kingdom, in addition to faithful from among Mecca residents.”
Over the past weeks, Saudi Arabia had widely cited a figure of two million-plus pilgrims expected to take part in the hajj.
Saudi authorities have for many years been taking precautions to head off any trouble caused by foreign pilgrims during the hajj.
But this year, they dread the possibility of a terrorist attack following suicide bombings that killed 52 people in Riyadh last May and November, blamed on Islamic extremists in Al-Qaeda.
“We hope nothing will happen to disrupt the hajj. But if anything happens, we are fully prepared to confront it firmly and forcefully,” Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said Tuesday night.
Saudi authorities said in early November they had foiled a plot to attack pilgrims gathered in Mecca during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and shot dead two “terrorists.”
Five suspected terrorists who had been preparing an attack and two security men had been killed during raids by security forces in the holy city in mid-June.
The latest outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in East Asia and reported cases of Ebola in Africa are also a source of dread for the Saudi authorities since pilgrims from both regions flock to Mecca for the yearly pilgrimage.
“No contagious disease or epidemic was recorded during the hajj this year,” Saudi’s Health Minister Hamad bin Abdullah al-Mane told AFP two days before the start of the pilgrimage.
Hospitals and tens of health centres have been set up to aid the faithful who should find the hajj easier this year thanks to the cooler climate, with temperatures varying between 17 and 32 degress Celsius (63 and 90 Fahrenheit), according to the meteorology services.
While performing the hajj rituals, men are clad in a two-piece seamless white cloth in keeping with tradition, while women are fully covered except for the hands and face.
The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is required of able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, if they have the financial means.