Muslims start Hajj against the backdrop of Israel-Hamas war

MINA, Saudi Arabia — 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 amassed in and around Mecca for the Hajj, and the number was growing as more pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia join. Authorities expected the number to exceed 2 million this year.

This year’s Hajj comes against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

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.

Saudi authorities have apparently been concerned about potential protests or chants against the war during the Hajj pilgrimage. They said they won’t tolerate politicizing the pilgrimage.

“The kingdom resolutely confirms that it will not allow any attempt to turn the sacred sites [in Mecca] into an arena for mob chanting,” Colonel Talal Al-Shalhoub, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, said in a news conference Friday. “The security and safety of the guests of Rahman is a red line.”

Officials said 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 outside Gaza — mostly in Egypt — before the closure of the Rafah border crossing.

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.

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.

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

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.

After Saturday’s worship in Arafat, pilgrims travel a few kilometers 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.

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 Fahrenheit). The Health Ministry has cautioned that temperatures at the holy sites could reach 48 Celsius (118 Fahrenheit).

Many pilgrims carried umbrellas, and in Mina, charities handed out cold water. Cooling stations sprayed pilgrims with water.

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