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Makkah: Muslim pilgrims have been descending in droves on Makkah for the Haj, the world’s largest annual gathering which Saudi Arabia insists will not be affected by instability shaking the region.
Walking in groups, mostly led by guides with their countries’ flags printed on their garments, faithful men and women have poured into Makkah to perform the minor pilgrimage, or umrah, ahead of the major Haj rituals.
Officials say the main events, which begin on Wednesday, are expected to attract more than two million devotees from across the world.
Thursday marks the most important day, when all pilgrims assemble in the Arafat plain outside Makkah. The pilgrimage ends after Eid Al Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, which will be celebrated on Friday.
The Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam that every capable Muslim must perform at least once in lifetime.
“It’s my first time in Makkah for pilgrimage. I can’t wait to pray in Arafat,” said 32-year-old Koara Abdulrahman, a businessman from Burkina Faso.
Inside the Grand Mosque, scores of pilgrims continually circumambulate the cube-shaped Ka’aba — in which direction Muslims worldwide pray — with many pushing their way through the crowds to kiss the walls of the structure.
Others pray or recite verses of the Holy Quran.
“Right now, I’ve got all the good feelings you can think of,” said an Iranian pilgrim, her voice quivering and tears welling up in her eyes.
Authorities said more than 1.6 million foreign pilgrims have already arrived and the numbers are set to grow by Wednesday. Around 750,000 domestic pilgrims are also expected to take part in the rituals.
A bulk of pilgrims are from Asia, mostly from Indonesia which has the highest Haj quota.
It was unclear how many Syrians, whose country is being rocked by a civil war that began with a popular uprising against President Bashar Al Assad’s regime 19 months ago, will make the journey.
Damascus claimed in September that Saudi authorities have barred Syrians from travelling to this year’s hajj after the two sides failed “to reach consensus.”
But on Saturday Saudi Interior Minister Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz insisted that pilgrims from Syria are not being barred, except those who sent in their applications too late.
The Saudi envoy to Lebanon said last week that the kingdom will also grant visas to Syrians in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, where thousands of refugees who have fled the violence are being accommodated.
Prince Ahmad also warned that Riyadh will not allow the hajj to be “politicised” and told reporters the kingdom was not worried that trouble in Syria and other Arab countries could affect the Haj or that pilgrims from its regional arch-foe Iran would cause any disturbance.
“I don’t expect pilgrims or the pilgrimage to be affected by what is taking place elsewhere, whether Syria or any other place,” he said. “We don’t expect any” unrest to be caused by Iranians, he added.
Haj has become nearly incident-free over the past few years — thanks to the multi-billion projects being implemented every year.
This year alone, the kingdom spent more than SR1.1bn ($293.3m) on development projects in the holy sites of Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifah, all outside Makkah.
Saudi authorities have also taken measures to deal with any epidemics that may break out during the hajj, and have downplayed fears over the spread of a mystery illness from the same family as the deadly SARS-like virus.