Amid regional tensions and a swine flu scare, about 3m Muslims dressed in simple white attire assembled on Thursday on the plain of Mount Arafat, east of the holy city of Mecca, to mark the climax of the world’s biggest annual pilgrimage, or hajj.
Waves of worshippers covered the plain and filled the roads. Others who could not find a space climbed on top of buildings, raising their hands to the sky, praying for forgiveness on the mountain, where the Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon to pilgrims.
But the hajj this year took place amid tensions between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran. During the weeks leading up to the pilgrimage, Iranian leaders warned Riyadh against mistreating Shia pilgrims, saying it would take “appropriate measures’’ were complaints made.
In response, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, warned against politicising the religious gathering and banned demonstrations. In 1987, 402 people died when Saudi security officials opened fire to quell demonstrations by Shia pilgrims protesting against US and Israeli policies.
In his annual sermon to worshippers, Abdelaziz Al al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, urged Muslims to renounce schism.
“Some so-called Muslims are determined to politicise the hajj, harm its security, cause chaos and anarchy,’’ the sheikh said. “But our protected country is in strong hands that will never allow anyone to compromise our security.’’
Tension between Riyadh and Tehran escalated after Saudi Arabia launched an assault on Yemen’s Houthis Shia rebels two weeks ago after a cross-border incursion that killed two Saudi border guards and wounded 11 others.
A senior Iranian military official accused Riyadh of killing Shias in Yemen and denounced what he called “state terrorism”.
Saudi clerics have accused the Yemeni rebels of collaborating with Iran to spread Shia beliefs in the heart of Sunni Islam.
Each year the hajj poses a huge logistics, security and health challenge to Saudi Arabia. The government spends millions of dollars on health and security preparations for the season. Dozens of helicopters hover over the holy sites all day and 100,000 security officers are deployed to assist pilgrims and maintain security.
The spread of swine flu this summer and fear of a pandemic during the hajj has also concerned Riyadh. It has urged Muslims older than 65 and younger than 12 – as well as those with chronic diseases and pregnant women – not to perform the ritual this year.
Several countries have put curbs on their pilgrims and Tunisia has banned citizens from going altogether.
Four pilgrims have died from swine flu, while 68 were being treated in hospital.
Hajj is one of the main five pillars of Islam and it is required once in a lifetime but only for those who physically and financially capable.
After sunset on Friday, the pilgrims would continue their journey toward Mecca, heading for Muzdalifa to gather pebbles for the symbolic ritual of throwing stones at a set of pillars and walls representing the devil. After that they will arrive to Mecca to perform “tawaf’’, or circling the cubic-shaped Kaaba seven times. Then they will walk between Al-Safa and Al-Marwa hills just outside the grand mosque for seven times.