Saudis Promise Protections At Hajj
http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,1280,-3699965,00.htmlMINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Saudi Arabia’s top religious cleric promised measures Monday to prevent more tragedy at the annual Muslim pilgrimage, a day after 251 people were trampled to death during the “stoning the devil” ritual. Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik’s comments came a few hours after the Saudi government said it would form an agency to redevelop Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities. But some pilgrims questioned the resolve of the Saudis to end the string of tragedies that have marred the hajj, or pilgrimage, in recent years. “We are tired of this broken record that keeps blaming the pilgrims. The government keeps saying that more people were performing the hajj this year than in previous years, as if Muslims are just now realizing the importance of the hajj. We don’t want excuses or a scapegoat. We want a solution,” said Ibrahim Abdul Radi, an Egyptian pilgrim. Ezzedin Hemeida, a Sudanese construction technician attending the hajj with seven relatives, said they were “quite anxious” before they went to perform the stoning ritual. Saudi “authorities need to find a way to handle this crowd, it’s becoming intolerable,” he said, adding that men, women and the elderly should have separate time slots. The senior cleric’s statement did not elaborate on what measures would be taken, but it is likely that al-Sheik will issue an Islamic fatwa, or edict, related directly to performing the stoning. “The Board of Senior Theologians is pained by the incident and continues to search for any means that could prevent such incidents. It will meet on Thursday in Mecca to issue a decisive statement to solve this problem, God willing,” al-Sheik said in a statement, reported by the official Saudi Press Agency. In 1998, following a stampede during the ritual in which 180 people were killed, religious authorities issued an edict permitting the stoning to begin at dawn instead of after midday. The idea was to give worshippers more time and enable authorities to control them. The stoning – often the most emotionally charged ritual at the pilgrimage – is performed three days in a row before sunset. Pilgrims also were trampled to death on their way to the stoning ritual in 1994, 1998, 2001 and 2003. Seven more pilgrims died of their injuries Monday, the Saudi Health Ministry said. The Saudi government’s announcement that it would form an agency to redevelop Mecca and Medina came in response to Sunday’s stampede. Saudi King Fahd said the agency would develop the holy sites “according to the current and future circumstances,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported Monday. Plans would be “comprehensive” and serve for “no less than 20 years.” Sunday’s tragedy was the worst disaster at the hajj since 1997, when 340 pilgrims died in a fire at the tent city of Mina, near Mecca. To control the crowds, the Saudis had set quotas for pilgrims from each country. About 2 million Muslims are participating in this year’s pilgrimage. The crowd got out of control Sunday as pilgrims moved along a wide ramp leading to the stoning – where they throw pebbles at three stone pillars, symbolizing their contempt for the devil. Bishr Abdullah, a Nigerian pilgrim who dislocated his shoulder in Sunday’s melee, said he was very close to the pillar when pushing began from two directions. “When the pressure intensified, I could not breath and I fell. People stepped on me, but luckily someone I don’t know pulled me out,” he said from his bed at King Faisal Hospital in Mecca. Many Muslims who have performed the ritual have harrowing tales to tell about being swept away by the crowds, and being afraid to trip or fall for fear of being crushed to death. “All precautions were taken to prevent such an incident, but this is God’s will,” Saudi Hajj Minister Iyad Madani said Sunday. “Caution isn’t stronger than fate.” About 10,000 security officers were on duty at the time in that area, said Brig. Mansour al-Turki of the Saudi General Security Forces. No major incidents were reported Monday, as pilgrims continued the ritual.