Middle East Saudi Arabia World News

Pilgrims brave heavy rain on Sunday as annual Hajj begins

Eid Al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice, begins on Tuesday, when pilgrims begin three days of casting stones at walls in a symbolic renunciation of the devil.

The authorities have been preparing for months to ensure pilgrims’ safety, Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah told Reuters, with more than 30,000 health workers operating 25 hospitals and offering free medical services, including complex procedures such as open heart surgery.

“Praise to God, everything now is under control and health conditions are excellent,” he said in an interview at Mina Public Hospital.

The potential for disease spreading among pilgrims, who spend five days in close quarters, often eating outside and sleeping on the ground near holy sites, is a perennial concern.

Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites — Mecca and Medina — and organizing the pilgrimage.

The interior ministry has put in place measures to confront any security threat from militant attacks to political protests, but no specific threats have been detected, a spokesman said on Saturday.

Pilgrimage is also the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil.

The haj and year-round umrah generate billions of dollars in revenue from worshippers’ lodging, transport, fees and gifts.

Officials aim to increase the number of umrah and haj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020, and hope to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030.

Some pilgrims on Saturday hiked 700 metres (2300 ft) to the tiny Hira cave, where Muslims believe the Prophet was visited by the Angel Gabriel and began to receive Koranic recitations.

“It’s indescribable. It’s overwhelming to see how his impact has been on this world,” said American pilgrim Nasser Mahmoud. “But that’s where it all started. It’s a very humble thing, you can’t even stand there.”

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