MAKKAH: Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have poured into the holy city of Makkah for the annual Haj pilgrimage as Saudi Arabia issued a stern warning against politicising the world’s largest annual gathering.
People dressed in ihram, a two-piece seamless garment of white cloth, filled the area around the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest place of worship, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba and is witnessing massive construction work.
Just two days before the official start of the Haj, around one million faithful performed Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque as the cleric who officiated called for a peaceful and quiet Haj.
Sheikh Saleh bin Mohammed Al Taleb also called on Muslims to unite and end disputes.
Authorities stepped up preparations as police closed most entrances to the Grand Mosque to vehicles, turning traffic in the area around the site into a menacing experience.
Due to the scare from the MERS coronavirus, which has already killed 51 in Saudi Arabia, and high pollution from vehicles emissions, some pilgrims and security men wore face masks and also covered their heads to protect themselves from the scorching heat.
Officials said around 1.4 million pilgrims have already arrived from abroad, with expectations of around two million pilgrims this year. That is sharply down from last year’s 3.2 million, due to forced cuts as a result of expansion work and the scare from MERS, short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
Road blocks were set up on all roads leading to Makkah and people who did not carry official permits were turned back. This year, security patrols are deployed in remote and deserted roads to block illegal pilgrims.
The pilgrimage starts tomorrow and ends on October 18.
Monday marks the most important day, when everyone assembles at Mount Arafat, just outside Makkah, for the peak of the Haj.
The kingdom has mobilised 95,000 members of the security forces, in addition to troops supporting the defence ministry, the national guard and intelligence, according to the interior minister.