Heavens open as 2.5 million pilgrims begin the hajj

MECCA, Nov 25 (AFP) - A day-long downpour fouled the start of the annual hajj on Wednesday, soaking thousands of people as they walked from Mecca to Mina, snarling traffic and stranding buses for hours.

Some of the 2.5 million Muslims on the world's largest annual pilgrimage said they would skip the traditional overnight stay in Mina valley because the rain had bottled up bus transport from Mecca.

Instead they planned to stay in the holy city and travel on Thursday morning directly to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon and where pilgrims are required to recite the Koran and pray.

"We delayed going to Mina because of the heavy rain in Mecca. We were afraid of becoming sick," said Iraqi Iyad Badawi, 40, undertaking the hajj with his wife. "We will go to Arafat directly after midnight" by bus, he said.

Earlier on Wednesday the rain had sparked worries among hajj officials over possible flooding. At least 11 people were killed by floods in the nearby port city of Jeddah, gateway to the hajj, officials said.

Hundreds of pilgrims were also stranded in buses on the 80-kilometre (50-mile) road from to Mecca from Jeddah, the main port of entry for most people from abroad going on the hajj.

Power was knocked out in parts of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah because of the rainstorm, the Saudi Electricity Company said.

A sea of pilgrims from all over the world, dressed in white robes and towels, began the five-day hajj late on Tuesday and early on Wednesday, circling the Kaaba shrine inside Mecca's Grand Mosque.

Few people appeared concerned over the main threat to the hajj, swine flu, despite the news that four pilgrims had died from the disease before the rites officially began.

Saudi health officials said that all four had already been suffering from other health problems, one from cancer and another from heart disease.

Proven and suspected infections from the A(H1N1) flu among hajj participants were just 67, health ministry spokesman Dr Khaled Marghlani told AFP on Wednesday. "Everything is going smoothly, thanks to God," he said.

Swine flu has killed some 6,750 people around the world this year, the World Health Organisation said on Friday, and Saudi authorities have deployed as many as 20,000 health workers.

Marghlani said the rain could increase health risks for pilgrims, but that the authorities had "planned for this possibility."

Amid a war of words between Riyadh and Tehran over predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia's treatment of mainly Shiite Iranian pilgrims, sources in the Iranian delegation said they would hold a ritual protest in their own camp in the massive tent city in Mina valley.

While the Saudis have banned political acts that may disrupt the hajj, the Iranians said they will go ahead with the ritual chanting of "Death to Israel, death to the United States" and call for unity among Muslims worldwide.

Traffic was jammed around Mecca late on Tuesday as hundreds of thousands of latecomers arrived in the western Saudi city to launch into the rites of the hajj, required for all able Muslims at least once in their lifetime.

Ceremonies begin with the "tawaf," circling seven times the cubic Kaaba building in the centre of the massive, one-million-person capacity Grand Mosque, in whose direction all Muslims around the world pray.

The next stage is the overnight stay at Mina before climbing Mount Arafat.

On Wednesday afternoon, thousands of people plodded through the rain on the eight-kilometre (five-mile) trek to Mina, as others tried to go by bus. But the rain blocked roads and buses stood immobile, often not moving for an hour.

The Saudis were expecting about two million foreigners this year for the hajj. But the number of pilgrims from inside the kingdom, estimated at near one million last year, was expected to be sharply down because of swine flu fears. (By Adel Zaanoun/ AFP)

MySinchew 2009.11.26