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More than two million Muslims gather for Hajj pilgrimage

The Hajj pilgrimage is one of the world's largest annual gatherings [Getty]

Date of publication: 30 August, 2017

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All Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes if they have the means to do so, completing one of the pillars of Islam.
More than two million Muslims from around the world will start the Hajj pilgrimage at Islam's holiest sites on Wednesday, a religious duty and an epic multi-stage journey.

This year, the first day of the pilgrimage starts on August 30 and ends on September 4. All Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes if they have the means to do so, completing one of the pillars of Islam. 

This year sees pilgrims from Iran return after a hiatus following a diplomatic spat between the Islamic republic and Sunni arch-rival Saudi Arabia. 

Riyadh and Tehran cut ties following a deadly 2015 stampede that left nearly 2,300 people dead, including 464 Iranians, and tensions added after the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia which sparked attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

Hajj in numbers:

- More than two million pilgrims are taking part this year, according to official figures, compared to 1.86 million last year and just 24,000 in 1941.

- Some 221,000 Indonesians are currently in Mecca, the highest ever number from a foreign country, an Indonesian official told the Saudi Gazette newspaper.

- More than 100,000 security personnel have been mobilised to keep pilgrims safe, the Saudi interior ministry says.

- Some 17,000 civil defence employees backed by 3,000 vehicles are also helping with security.

- Thousands of security cameras have been set up along the pilgrimage route, according to a civil defence spokesman.

- Tens of thousands of air-conditioned tents have been set up in Mina, between Mount Arafat and Mecca, to house pilgrims.

- The Saudi Red Crescent has mobilised 2,468 employees and 500 volunteers, who will work with 326 ambulances and eight helicopters.

- More than 700 Saudi cooks have been recruited to feed the faithful, Arab News reported.

- Saudi Arabia hopes to welcome 30 million pilgrims annually in the kingdom by 2030, the Saudi Gazette said, up from the current 8 million. Muslims also flock to the country for the umra pilgrimage, which can be performed at any time of the year.

- Last year, 712,000 animals were slaughtered during the Hajj, according to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Saudi authorities have mobilised vast resources in hope of avoiding a repeat of the 2015 stampede, but remain ready to deal with any similar situation this year.

“There is an integrated fleet of ambulances, each of which is considered its own fully equipped intensive-care unit. Ambulances are circulating on the roads between the tents," Saudi official Hussein Ghanam, told Reuters.

Health officials are also ready to deal with any outbreak of disease this year. This comes after the World Health Organisation warned last month that pilgrims could be exposed to a cholera outbreak that has swept through Yemen.

Read also: Yemen cholera outbreak 'spirals out of control' with more than 300,000 suspected to be ill

The disease, which has already infected 332,000 people in Yemen, raises the risk of infection at the gathering in Mecca, where pilgrims are already wary of diseases such as dengue, yellow fever and Zika virus.

"The current highly spreading outbreak of cholera in Yemen, as well as in some African countries, may represent a serious risk to all pilgrims during the (Hajj) days and even after returning to their countries," a WHO bulletin said.

WHO cholera expert Dominique Legros said Saudi Arabia has avoided cholera outbreaks for many years due to reinforced surveillance and early detection.

"Don't forget that today we are speaking of Yemen but they are receiving pilgrims from a lot of endemic countries, and they managed not to have an outbreak, essentially by making sure that living conditions, access to water in particular, hygienic conditions, are in place," Legros told a UN briefing group.

Cholera, which spreads by the ingestion of faecal matter, has an incubation period of a few hours. The disease can kill an infected person within hours if symptoms are not treated.

However, the fact that 80 percent of patients show no symptoms has made it harder for health agencies to contain the disease, Legros said.

"That's why we advise countries against airport screening for patients. The Saudis don't do that. It's useless, technically speaking," he said.

The highly contagious disease is treatable, but the collapse of Yemen's infrastructure following more than two years of a Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in the country has created a "perfect storm for cholera", the World Health Organisation has said.

Read also: Sun, stoning and supplications: What are the rituals of Hajj?

The pilgrimage also comes amid a diplomatic crisis between a Saudi-led bloc of Arab countries and Qatar, accused of supporting extremist groups and being too close to Riyadh's arch-rival Tehran.

A blockade imposed on Qatar since June 5 has seen sea and air links shut down, preventing many Qataris from making Hajj, although Riyadh relaxed entry restrictions across its land border with the emirate two weeks before the pilgrimage.

Earlier this week, Qatar said it was worried that Hajj pilgrims from the emirate may face being badly treated if they travel to Saudi Arabia as the row over arrangements for the religious event intensified.

The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs said that considering the ongoing Gulf diplomatic impasse, it was concerned about the safety of pilgrims travelling from Doha in the next few days.

"Given the current situation, [the ministry] remains concerned and fearful for Qatari pilgrims and a repeat of the harassment of Qatari citizens in June," read the statement.

The colossal religious gathering also comes with the Islamic State under pressure having lost swathes of territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria. But the group continues to claim attacks in the Middle East and Europe.

Saudi authorities say they are ready for any eventuality.

Interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki said more than 100,000 security personnel had been deployed at various sites along the Hajj route.

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