Pilgrims flock to Makkah for the hajj

Pilgrims from around the world have begun massing in Saudi Arabia for the hajj, undeterred by a crane collapse that killed 108 people at Islam’s holiest site.

More than 1.2 million faithful have already arrived for the annual hajj, which begins on Tuesday against a backdrop of increased jihadi violence, a surge of the deadly MERS virus and with the kingdom at war in Yemen.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and every capable Muslim must perform the pilgrimage at least once.

Previously marred by stampedes and fires that killed hundreds, it had been largely incident-free for the past decade after safety improvements.

But on September 11, during severe winds, a construction crane toppled into a courtyard of the Grand Mosque. Saudis, Iranians, Nigerians, Malaysians, Indonesians and Indians were among the dead.

About 400 more people were injured, but it has not stopped pilgrims carrying out their rituals.

The crane was one of several on a multi-billion-dollar expansion to accommodate increasing numbers of faithful. With another million pilgrims expected for the hajj, King Salman acted swiftly to sanction the developer, Saudi Binladin Group.

The crane collapse killed 108 people
The crane collapse killed 108 people

And while the pilgrims will not notice it, they are arriving in a country at war.

Since March, the kingdom has led an Arab coalition conducting air strikes and supporting local forces in Yemen against Houthi rebels.

Hundreds of miles south of the Muslim holy cities of Makkah and Medina, at least 61 Saudi soldiers and civilians have been killed since March in shelling and skirmishes on the Saudi frontier with Yemen.

Thousands more people have died inside Yemen.

With Sunni Saudi Arabia’s Shia rival Iran backing the Houthis, the Yemen war has raised regional tensions.

Tehran and Riyadh also support opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, but political differences have not stopped Iran’s pilgrims from arriving for hajj.

ISIS, which has carried out widespread atrocities and considers Shias to be heretics, has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq. It has also killed dozens of people this year in bombings at Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Kuwait.

Meanwhile, a challenge again facing the hajj is potential transmission of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

The capital Riyadh saw a jump in infections last month.

But Health Minister Khaled al-Falih said all pilgrims are so far in “very good, if not excellent health.”

Saudi Arabia is the country worst affected by MERS, with 528 deaths since the virus appeared in 2012.

The health ministry has mobilised 25,000 additional medical staff to support the hajj, but says there has never been a case of MERS among pilgrims.

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