By Omar Hasan, AFP
MINA , Saudi Arabia–Some two million Muslims thronged Mina Valley from the holy city of Mecca to start the annual hajj pilgrimage Sunday, with numbers down on fears of the MERS virus and Saudi cuts. Authorities announced at noon that all the pilgrims had reached Mina from nearby Mecca, following in the footsteps of Prophet Mohammed some 14 centuries ago. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said the number of pilgrims from outside the country totaled 1,379,531 million, down 21 percent on last year’s 1.75 million. Around 1.29 million of them had flown to Saudi Arabia from 188 countries, he said, without giving a figure for pilgrims residing in the kingdom whose number is believed to have been halved. The kingdom cut by 20 percent the quotas for pilgrims allowed in from abroad over fears of MERS and because of massive projects to expand the capacity of the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest place of worship. Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia told reporters late Saturday the authorities had so far detected no cases among the pilgrims of the MERS virus which has killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia. Authorities have stepped up measures to curb illegal pilgrims who infiltrate into Mecca through desert roads. Security officials have said that as many as 31,000 Saudi and expatriate pilgrims were turned back for not carrying legal permits, while around 12,600 others were arrested.
The pilgrims moved to Mina by road, by train or on foot, the men wearing ihram, the seamless two-piece white garment that rituals require, the women covered up except for their faces and hands. In Mina, a small site with 45,000 fire-resistant tents that can accommodate two million people, they will pray and rest before moving on to Mount Arafat on Monday for the climax of the pilgrimage rituals. A newly-constructed electric railway transported around 400,000 of the pilgrims taking part in the world’s largest annual gathering. Saudi Arabia has deployed more than 100,000 troops to ensure the safety of the pilgrims and has warned it will tolerate no demonstrations or disturbances. Security forces are monitoring the holy sites in and around Mecca with 4,200 hi-tech cameras, some of which can cover a distance of 60 kilometers (37 miles).