Pilgrims start first day of trouble-free hajj
A massive crowd prays at the Grand Mosque in Mecca
March 25, 1999
Web posted at: 3:23 AM EST (0823 GMT)
MECCA, Saudi Arabia, March 25 (Reuters) - Two million Muslims performing the annual hajj pilgrimage began their journey on foot and aboard buses and cars on Thursday to a vast tent city in Saudi Arabia on the first day of a so-far trouble-free rite.
Wrapped in seamless white sheets and carrying umbrellas against 36 Celsius (97 Fahrenheit) temperatures, pilgrims from around 100 countries began leaving Islam's holy city of Mecca after dawn prayers at the Grand Mosque where they circled the Kaaba seven times, the first hajj ritual.
"The journey to Mena is proceeding successfully despite the huge numbers of pedestrians and cars," a Saudi official said.
Officials said the pilgrimage was trouble free so far, apart from an incident on Tuesday at the Grand Mosque where some pilgrims chanted slogans against the United States and Israel.
Iran's official media said on Wednesday some pilgrims chanted the slogans while circling the Kaaba -- which Muslims around the world face when praying.
A Saudi security official told Thursday's Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that Iranian pilgrims started chanting the slogans and might have been joined by other nationalities.
"The Saudi security intervened...and settled the issue without any confrontation," the official was quoted as saying.
He reiterated Saudi Arabia's policy banning any political activity or slogans during the pilgrimage, but said security authorities would not intervene in any activity by pilgrims inside their compounds.
Iran also said its pilgrims held a memorial service for more than 400 compatriots who were killed in clashes with Saudi police in 1987 during an Iranian-led political rally.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has insisted on holding a rally during the haj to denounce Israel and the United States in defiance of the Saudi ban on political activity during the religious occasion.
But amid improving ties between the two regional heavyweights, Iranian pilgrims have in recent years confined their rally to within the confines of their compound.
In another controversy, Saudi newspapers kept up a barrage of criticism against Iraq for recalling 18,000 would-be pilgrims from the border despite a Saudi offer to cover their hajj costs.
The Iraqi pilgrims who had been camped near the border were called back on Saturday in a row over the unfreezing of Iraqi assets held in Saudi banks since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Iraq also said Saudi armed forces had surrounded the group.
Some 6,000 Iraqis have paid their own way to Mecca.
Along the way from Mecca, traffic flowed through tunnels and on bridges and roads to Mena plain where thousands of fire-proof tents await the pilgrims who will spend the night there.
On Friday, they go to Mount Arafat where Prophet Mohammad gave his last sermon 14 centuries ago, marking the end of hajj.
In 1997, 343 people were killed in a fire that swept the tent city. Saudi Arabia has since erected close to 30,000 fire-proof tents in Mena, about 10 km (six miles) from Mecca.
Saudi Arabia is also introducing a new plan to avert congestion on a bridge used by pilgrims on the last day of haj. Last year, 119 people died in a stampede on the bridge.
Walking shoulder to shoulder and carrying bottles of water to quench their thirst and avoid dehydration in the heat, the pilgrims chanted: "I have answered your call, God. There is no God but you," on their way to Mena.
Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars to ensure a safe pilgrimage and has deployed tens of thousands of police, civil defence teams, doctors, nurses and cleaners.