MINA (AFP) – Some two million Muslims streamed into Mina Valley from the holy city of Mecca on the annual hajj pilgrimage Sunday, their numbers reduced over health fears and Saudi cuts.
Authorities announced at noon that all the pilgrims had reached Mina from nearby Mecca, following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed some 14 centuries ago.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said there were 1,379,531 million pilgrims from outside the country, down 21 percent on last year’s 1.75 million.
Some 1.29 million had flown in from 188 countries, he said, without giving a figure for domestic pilgrims whose number is believed to have been halved.
The kingdom cut by 20 percent the quotas for pilgrims from abroad over fears of infections from the MERS respiratory virus and because of massive projects to expand the capacity of the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest place of worship.
Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia told reporters Saturday no cases of the MERS virus which has killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia, have been detected so far among pilgrims.
Some pilgrims left Mina early on Sunday and headed for Mount Arafat and Monday’s climax of the hajj.
“It’s the journey of lifetime and a dream come true,” said Chadliya al-Zahi from Tunisia.
“I never imagined it would ever come after waiting seven years for my turn,” she told AFP after arriving at Arafat with her husband.
“I really can’t describe my feelings — it’s wonderful,” said Omer Senan from Turkey as he walked with several friends.
“I wish every Muslim had this opportunity. Tomorrow, I’ll first pray for Syria and for all Muslims to live in peace,” he added.
Authorities have boosted measures to curb unregistered pilgrims who try to infiltrate Mecca via desert roads.
45,000 fire-resistant tents
Security officials have said that as many as 31,000 Saudi and expatriate pilgrims were turned back for not carrying legal permits, and around 12,600 more were arrested.
The pilgrims moved from Mecca to Mina by road, by train or on foot, men wearing the seamless two-piece white garment or ihram that rituals require, the women covered except for their faces and hands.
In Mina, a small site but boasting 45,000 fire-resistant tents that can accommodate two million people, they pray and rest before moving on to Mount Arafat on Monday.
A newly constructed electric railway transported around 400,000 of the pilgrims taking part in the world’s largest annual gathering.
Saudi Arabia has deployed more than 100,000 troops to ensure the safety of the pilgrims and has warned it will not tolerate demonstrations or disturbances.
Security forces are monitoring the holy sites in and around Mecca with 4,200 hi-tech cameras, some of which can cover a distance of 60 kilometres (37 miles).
Authorities said more than 20,000 buses ferried the pilgrims to Mina, using 58 tunnels under Mecca’s mountains. Some walked the distance on foot.
The oil-rich kingdom has mobilised massive medical and civil defence resources to ensure the smooth movement of the pilgrims.
The fact that the kingdom accounts for the overwhelming majority of MERS cases reported around the world has raised concerns pilgrims could be infected and return home carrying the virus.
But authorities have voiced confidence the hajj will pass off without incident.
This year’s minor pilgrimage season, called the “umrah”, during the fasting month of Ramadan in July-August, took place without any MERS outbreak even though millions of people took part.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam that all capable Muslim must perform at least once.
Despite being marred by deadly incidents in the past, including floods, stampedes and fires, the hajj has in recent years been almost incident-free, thanks to multi-billion-dollar safety projects by the authorities.