12 Jun 2024, 11:24
Update : 12 Jun 2024, 11:40

Gaza war hangs over hajj as pilgrims flock to Makkah

MAKKAH, Saudi Arabia, June 12, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of
Muslims have flocked to the Saudi holy city of Makkah for the hajj pilgrimage
unfolding this year in the shadow of the Gaza war.

One of the world's largest annual religious gatherings officially begins on
Friday, and Saudi officials are trying to keep the focus on prayers.

The Gulf kingdom's minister in charge of religious pilgrimages, Tawfiq al-
Rabiah, warned last week that "no political activity" will be tolerated.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, must be performed at least once
by all Muslims with the means, and as of Thursday around 1.2 million pilgrims
had already arrived in Saudi Arabia from abroad to take part.

Last year saw more than 1.8 million people complete the hajj rites which last
for several days. Around 90 percent came from overseas, mainly from elsewhere
in the Arab world and from Asia, according to official figures.

Israel's withering military operations against Hamas militants in Gaza have
"created a lot of anger in (the) broader Muslim world", turning this year's
hajj into a "test" for Saudi leaders, said Umer Karim, an expert on Saudi
politics at the University of Birmingham.

"Protest or performance is bound to happen by individuals or groups of
pilgrims, and Saudis understand this is a slippery slope," he said. "Thus for
Saudi rulers conducting hajj is a matter of prestige but also a test of their

- Pilgrimage politics -

The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas's October 7 attack resulted
in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally
based on Israeli official figures.

The Israeli army then launched a devastating offensive on the Gaza Strip that
has left at least 37,164 dead, the majority of them civilians, according to
data from the health ministry of the Hamas-led Gaza government.

Saudi Arabia has never recognised Israel but de facto ruler Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman was considering establishing formal diplomatic ties with
Israel before the October 7 attack.

Saudi leaders remain in talks with US officials about a so-called mega-deal
that would see Riyadh recognise Israel in exchange for a deeper security
relationship with Washington.

However Saudi officials have said ties with Israel are impossible without
"irrevocable" steps towards recognition of a Palestinian state, which Israel
has long opposed.

Saudi King Salman issued a decree on Monday to host 1,000 pilgrims "from the
families of martyrs and the wounded from the Gaza Strip", bringing to 2,000
the number of Palestinian pilgrims to be hosted this year, according to the
official Saudi Press Agency.

The hajj is a source of legitimacy for Saudi rulers, and King Salman's title
includes "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in Makkah and Medina.

Yet the Saudi government also "uses the pilgrimage to control Muslims
worldwide", as it can potentially bar critics from performing an essential
religious rite, said Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi academic and opposition
figure based in London.

"The Saudis will increase their control over the pilgrims to prevent any
mobilisation around support for Gaza. It remains to be seen whether the
pilgrims will respect Saudi wishes."

- Heat fears -

The rites in Makkah and its surroundings fall again this year during the hot
Saudi summer, with officials forecasting average high temperatures of 44
degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit).

Last year more than 2,000 people suffered heat stress, which includes
heatstroke, exhaustion, cramps and rashes, according to Saudi authorities.

The real figure was probably far higher, as many sufferers were not admitted
to hospitals or clinics.

Worshippers have already arrived en masse in Makkah to begin circling the
Kaaba, the large black cubic structure in the Grand Mosque in Makkah towards
which all Muslims pray.

Large crowds at the hajj have proved hazardous in the past, most recently in
2015 when a stampede during the "stoning the devil" ritual in Mina, near
Makkah, killed up to 2,300 people in the deadliest hajj disaster.

Managing the gathering represents "a logistical achievement", said Bernard
Haykel, a Saudi expert at Princeton University, with extensive surveillance
and monitoring in place for security and health reasons.

Pilgrimages to Mecca are a financial windfall for Saudi Arabia, generating
billions of dollars as the world's biggest crude oil exporter tries to
develop its tourism sector.

Umrah, the pilgrimage which can be performed throughout the year, drew 13.5
million worshippers last year, and authorities are targeting 30 million hajj
and umrah pilgrims by 2030.

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