WEBDESK: Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from across the globe began the annual hajj pilgrimage on Tuesday in one of the largest annual gatherings of people in the world.
In what for many will be the highlight of their spiritual lives, pilgrims began moving from Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Makkah to nearby Mina for the start of the six-day event.
Almost two million people are expected to take part in this year’s pilgrimage, undeterred by a crane collapse at Makkah’s Grand Mosque earlier this month that killed 109 people and injured nearly 400 at Islam’s holiest site.
Joyous pilgrims like 35-year-old Egyptian Walaa Ali had been gathering for days ahead of the event.
“It is a gift from God that He has chosen us to come here,” Ali said with tears in her eyes, as preachers nearby explained the history and rituals of the Hajj to men and women sitting side by side in Makkah.
“I am so happy to be here,” she said.
This year’s Hajj takes place against a backdrop of increased jihadist violence in some Muslim countries, a surge of the potentially deadly MERS virus and the war in Saudi Arabia’s neighbour Yemen.
The Hajj is among the five pillars of Islam and every capable Muslim must perform the pilgrimage at least once in his or her life.
About 100,000 police have been deployed to secure pilgrimage sites and manage the crowds, and authorities say they are on alert for possible attacks by extremists.
Security forces have taken “measures to prevent terrorist groups from exploiting Hajj season to carry out acts of sabotage,” interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said.
“We take all possibilities into consideration during Hajj. This includes the kingdom being targeted by terrorist organisations,” he told AFP.
This year’s Hajj also comes with Saudi Arabia at war, leading an Arab coalition conducting air strikes and supporting local forces in Yemen against Iran-backed rebels since March.
Most Yemeni pilgrims performing the Hajj this year already reside in the kingdom. Among other challenges facing Saudi authorities is potential transmission of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
The capital Riyadh saw a jump in infections last month, but health officials say there has never been a case of MERS infection among pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia is the country worst affected by MERS, with 532 deaths since the virus appeared in 2012.
The health ministry has mobilised thousands of health workers to help secure a virus-free pilgrimage and to care for routine ailments.