Pilgrims, Muslim World Offer Sacrifice, Pray for Unity
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ The world’s Muslim faithful turned toward Mecca’s Grand Mosque today on Islam’s holiest day and pilgrims joined in dawn prayers for Arab unity after the Persian Gulf War.
Thousands of sheep were slaughtered and distributed to the poor to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God.
Nearly 2 million pilgrims were in Mecca for the four-day Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice. The pilgrimage has been trouble-free despite fears that supporters of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might protest the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.
At sunrise, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims came down the slopes of Mount Arafat, where their hajj climaxed the previous day, to crowd the Grand Mosque for prayers.
Preachers called for piety and closing of Muslim ranks, but made no direct reference to the Persian Gulf crisis, the most recent issue to split adherents of the faith.
Sheik Saleh bin Abdullah bin Hameed said Muslims needed to draw on the principles of Islam ″to respond to those who want to destroy it.″
″If the Islamic nation surrenders to differences and is passive about its principles, then it is threatened with terrible annihilation,″ he warned.
He made a strong pitch in support of Sharia, the Islamic code which is law in Saudi Arabia and calls for beheading criminals, amputating hands of thieves, and stoning adulterers.
Weak criminal codes elsewhere were not reforming society, Hameed said.
He also said Islam did not discriminate against women. In pre-Islamic days women had been ″looked down upon,″ and in so-called modern societies women have been turned into ″a trap for all sins,″ Hameed said.
Among the day’s rituals was the ″stoning of the devil″ - throwing pebbles at three pillars near a huge cavern at Mina on the outskirts of Mecca. After that, many pilgrims travel to Medina, 280 miles away, to visit the Prophet Mohammed’s burial site.
Saudi officials said 720,000 pilgrims came by land, sea and air this year to perform the hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime requirement for all able-bodied Muslims. Another million people joined them from within Saudi Arabia.
The rituals are an imitation of the Prophet Mohammed’s trek through Islam’s holiest shrines 13 centuries ago when he established the Muslim faith.
Over the past year, King Fahd’s government has added seven air-conditioned, well-lit pedestrian tunnels and expanded an existing 15 to prevent a repeat of last year’s tragedy in which 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede rushing to perform the rituals.
The official Saudi Press Agency described this year’s flow of pilgrims as ″easy and smooth, gratitude be to God.″
The Saudi authorities also deployed an unprecedented number of security personnel in Mecca and Medina to prevent troublemaking. They would give no exact figures, but diplomats said thousands of soldiers, national guardsmen, police and cadets were called up.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Saudi security forces have had to watch out for Iranian pilgrims who insist on staging political demonstrations.
In 1987, more than 400 people were killed when Saudi police tried to prevent Iranians from marching on the Grand Mosque.
Iran boycotted the hajj over the following three years, to protest a Saudi quota system restricting the number of pilgrims from each Muslim country.
This year, the 115,000-strong Iranian contingent held one rally, away from the holy sites. Pilgrims shouted chants against the United States and Israel in what they called an anti-paganism ceremony, which ended peacefully.
Police were also on the alert for trouble from Iraqi pilgrims or those who sympathized with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
During the height of the Persian Gulf crisis and resulting war, Saddam tried to whip up the world’s Muslims against the Saudi ruling family for allowing foreign, non-Muslim troops in the country. He claimed they were desecrating the shrines.
Thousands of American soldiers are still in the kingdom but they do not come near Mecca, which is closed to non-Muslims.
The Iranian news agency quoted the Saudi charges d’affaires, Badr Othman Bakish, as saying in Tehran that ″foreign elements″ tried to disrupt the Iranian rally near Mecca on Tuesday.
But Bakish issued an official denial from Jiddah Friday night.