Saudi Arabia promises effective crowd control for Haj
MECCA: Tasked with ensuring the safety of two million Muslim worshippers, Saudi Arabia says it has improved measures to avoid deadly stampedes and fires that have marred the annual haj pilgrimage season in the past.
“Any gathering of people of this size in a limited geographical area could lead to problems but we have plans to prevent this,” Pilgrimage Affairs Minister Iyad Madani said as Muslims converged on the holy city of Mecca for this year’s haj.
Last year 14 people were trampled to death on the third day of the haj — the latest in a series of tragedies to hit the holy rite, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim. Numbers of pilgrims have risen dramatically from about 20,000 in the 1930s.
In 1990, 1,426 were crushed to death in a tunnel stampede, and at least 154 died in similar incidents in 1998 and 2001.
The main trouble spot has been the Jamarat Bridge, where pilgrims will flock on Saturday night and Sunday to stone thrones where Muslims believe the devil appeared to Abraham.
“We have started to bring pilgrims to the Jamarat on the basis of a specific timetable so that everyone doesn’t come at one time to the bridge,” Madani said.
“The other step is preventing cars completely from entering the Jamarat Bridge so there is no mix of cars and people,” he added. “We hope these measures together will stop incidents.”
The kingdom has also stepped up security measures, fearing possible militant attacks similar to the bombings in the capital Riyadh that killed more than 50 people last year. The bombings were blamed on Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group.
Sami Angawi, who set up the state’s Haj Research Centre in 1975, said crowd control plans had been obstructed by “five-star pilgrims” who refuse to walk and insist on performing rites at the time specified by the kingdom’s creed of Sunni Islam.
Following Wahhabi religious teaching, clerics say the stone-throwing should take place in the afternoon, as booklets handed out to pilgrims advise. Most pilgrims are not Wahhabi.
Angawi said the problem was that there could be an estimated 50,000 cars at the same time in one location. The haj rituals, laid down by Prophet Mohammad 14 centuries ago, see Muslims move around a circuit of several km in the mountainous terrain around Mecca over a five-day period. —Reuters