FILE PHOTO: A Muslim pilgrim prays as she gather with others on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
By Muhammad Yamany
MINA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – More than two million haj pilgrims headed back to Mecca for final prayers on Thursday as organisers said the world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims had gone smoothly in the face of political tensions and huge logistical challenges.
Senior Saudi officials said the rituals – which have been marred in the past by deadly stampedes, fires and riots – had passed without incident.
Mecca province governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal, who heads the central haj committee, said staff had used new technologies to run the massive event.
Pilgrims were given electronic bracelets this year to help manage the flow of people through the sites.
“We aspire to (have) a smart haj by using technology in all future activities,” he told reporters in Mina, east of Mecca. “The development of the holy sites, which will be implemented soon, depends entirely on technology and rapid communication.”
Thousands of worshippers participated in a symbolic stoning of the devil, part of the haj rituals, in Jamarat before returning to Mecca where the Grand Mosque filled with worshippers preparing to depart.
Click here for a graphic on The haj journey http://tmsnrt.rs/2imJ2yf.
Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites – Mecca and Medina – and its organisation of the pilgrimage. It is hoping to expand attendance to help build its tourism industry.
“A GREAT BLESSING”
More than 2.37 million pilgrims came this year, most of them from abroad, for the five-day ritual. Attendance is a religious duty, once in a lifetime, for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.
“I feel I am born once again,” said Egyptian pilgrim Sabah Saeed, 49. “This is a great blessing from God and it makes you so happy.”
More than 110,000 members of the security forces and 32,000 health workers were on hand this week to maintain safety and provide first aid, said organisers.
Saudi Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabeeah said the pilgrimage had passed without any outbreak of disease, a perennial concern.
A crush in 2015 killed nearly 800 pilgrims, according to Riyadh, when two large groups of pilgrims arrived at a crossroads east of Mecca. Counts by countries of repatriated bodies showed over 2,000 people may have died, including more than 400 Iranians.
Saudi authorities said at the time that the crush may have been caused by pilgrims failing to follow crowd control rules, and King Salman ordered an investigation but the results were never announced.
Asked about the probe on Thursday, Prince Khaled told reporters it was not within his purview, without specifying which government entity is handling it.
Some 86,000 Iranians attended haj this year amid a diplomatic rift between Tehran and Riyadh, which are locked in a struggle for regional supremacy. Their dispute was exacerbated by the 2015 crush.
Around 300 pilgrims came from Qatar, which is locked in a year-old diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia over alleged support for terrorism, which Qatar denies.
(Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Andrew Heavens)