WORLD

Muslims start the Hajj against the backdrop of the devastating Israel-Hamas war

Jun 13, 2024, 9:16 PM | Updated: Jun 14, 2024, 11:16 am

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — In sweltering temperatures, Muslim pilgrims in the Saudi city of Mecca converged on a vast desert tent camp Friday, officially starting the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Earlier, they circled the cube-shaped Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site.

More than 1.5 million pilgrims from around the world have already amassed in and around Mecca for the Hajj, and the number was still growing as more pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia joined. Authorities expected the number to exceed 2 million this year.

This year’s Hajj comes against the backdrop of the raging Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, which pushed the Middle East to the brink of a wider conflict.

Palestinians in Gaza were not able to travel to Mecca this year because of the closure of the Rafah crossing in May, when Israel expanded its ground offensive to the coastal strip’s southern city of Rafah, on the border with Egypt.

“We pray for the Muslims, for our country and people, for all the Muslim world, especially for the Palestinian people,” Mohammed Rafeeq, an Indian pilgrim, said as he headed to the tent camp in Mina.

Officials aid 4,200 pilgrims from the occupied West Bank went to the Hajj. Saudi authorities said 1,000 more from the families of Palestinians killed or wounded in Gaza also arrived, at the invitation of Saudi King Salman. The invitees were already outside Gaza — mostly in Egypt — before the closure of the Rafah border crossing.

“We are deprived of (performing) the Hajj because the crossing is closed, and because of the raging wars and destruction,” said Amna Abu Mutlaq, a 75-year-old Palestinian woman in Gaza’s southern city of Khan Younis who had planned to make the pilgrimage this year but was unable to.

This year’s Hajj also saw Syrian pilgrims traveling to Mecca on direct flights from Damascus for the first time in more than a decade. The change is part of an ongoing thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and conflict-stricken Syria. Syrians in rebel-held areas used to cross the border into neighboring Turkey to travel from there to the Hajj.

“This is the natural thing: Pilgrims go to Hajj directly from their home countries,” said Abdel-Aziz al-Ashqar, a Syrian coordinator of the group of pilgrims who left Damascus.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims are required to make it at least once in their lives if they are physically and financially able to do so. It is a moving spiritual experience for pilgrims who believe it absolves sins and brings them closer to God.

Uniting the world’s more than 2 billion Muslims, it’s also a chance to pray for peace in many conflict-stricken Arab and Muslim countries, including Yemen and Sudan, where more than a year of war has created the world’s largest displacement crisis.

For many Muslims, the Hajj is the only major journey they make in their lives. Some spend years saving up and waiting for a permit to make the Hajj in their 50s and 60s, after raising their children.

The rituals during the Hajj largely commemorate the Quran’s accounts of Prophet Ibrahim, his son Prophet Ismail and Ismail’s mother Hajar — or Abraham and Ismael as they are named in the Bible.

Male pilgrims wear an ihram, two unstitched sheets of white cloth that resemble a shroud, while women dress in conservative, loose-fitting clothing with headscarves and forgo makeup and perfume. The pilgrims have been circling around the cube-shaped Kaaba in the seven-minaret Grand Mosque since arriving in Mecca over recent days.

Saudi authorities have adopted security restrictions in and around Mecca, with checkpoints on roads leading to the city to prevent those who don’t have Hajj permits from reaching the holy sites.

Many who attempted to take pilgrims without Hajj permits have been arrested, said Lt. Gen. Muhammad al-Bassami, head of the Hajj Security Committee. Most were expelled from the country, while travel agents face up to six months in prison, the Interior Ministry said.

More than 256,000 visitors were not allowed to reach the holy sites because they lacked Hajj permits, Col. Talal Al-Shalhoub, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said at a news conference Friday.

Others who had incomplete papers paid fines to be allowed into Mecca. Mohammed Ramadan, an Egyptian who came to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj along with his parents, said he found that the type of visa they had didn’t allow them into Mecca. They paid 500 Saudi riyals ($133) each to be able to reach the holy sites.

“We were mistreated,” he said while heading to their tent in Mina. “But we forgot everything when we saw the Grand Mosque.”

On Friday, the pilgrims made their way to Mina, to officially start the Hajj. They will then move for a daylong vigil Saturday on Mount Arafat, a desert hill where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his final speech. Healthy pilgrims make the trip on foot, others use a bus or train.

The time of year when the Hajj takes place varies as it’s set for five days in the second week of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

Most of the Hajj rituals are held outdoors with little if any shade. When it falls in the summer, temperatures can soar to over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). The Health Ministry has cautioned that temperatures at the holy sites could reach 48 C (118 F).

Many pilgrims carried umbrellas for protection from the burning sun, and in Mina, charities handed out cold water. Cooling stations sprayed pilgrims with water to cool them down. The faithful set up in their tents, resting and praying together to prepare for the coming rituals.

After Saturday’s warship in Arafat, pilgrims travel a few kilometers (miles) to a site known as Muzdalifa, to collect pebbles to use in the symbolic stoning of pillars representing the devil back in Mina.

Pilgrims then return to Mina for three days, coinciding with the festive Eid al-Adha holiday, when financially able Muslims around the world slaughter livestock and distribute the meat to the poor. Afterward, they return to Mecca for a final circumambulation.

In recent years, the annual pilgrimage has returned to its monumental scale after three years of heavy restrictions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. In 2023, more than 1.8 million pilgrims performed the Hajj, approaching the 2019 level, when more than 2.4 million participated.

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Associated Press journalist Wafaa Shruafa in Gaza Strip contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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