Iran pilgrims stage protest

November 26, 2009 12:00 am

, ARAFAT, Nov 26 – Iranians chanted against Israel and America in a peaceful protest during the hajj on Thursday as millions of Muslims amassed for the peak of the world\’s largest annual pilgrimage.

Ignoring Saudi warnings against political activity, the Iranians chanted for Muslim unity and against the "enemies" of the faith in their camp at Arafat outside of Mecca.

"Death to America, death to Israel," thousands of Iranians chanted inside a huge tent on the Arafat plain.

No Saudi security forces were evident as Ayatollah Muhammed Rishari, the representative of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressed the Iranian delegation.

"We need to be purified from our wrongdoings in this hajj," he said in a statement.

"We need all Muslims, Sunni and Shiite, to be unified and focus on important issues: Al-Aqsa (mosque in Jerusalem), the occupation of Palestine, the problems in Iraq, the Afghan occupation, and the fighting between brothers in Yemen. We need be purified from all infidels."

Pilgrims flooded into the Arafat plain from Mecca and Mina before dawn for a key ritual around the site where the Prophet Mohammed gave his farewell sermon on this day on the Islamic calendar 1,377 years ago.

During the hajj pilgrims spend the day at Arafat in reflection and reading the Koran.

Thousands jammed directly onto the 70-metre (230-foot) tall hill to meditate, while the bulk of the pilgrims remained on the surrounding plain.

Many were seen in the morning gazing up into the sky with their palms held upward, reciting prayers. Some were crying.

"I\’m so happy because I\’m in Arafat," said Fatima, a pilgrim from Morocco. "Because the Prophet Mohammed spoke with Allah from this place. This is the most holy place in the world. I\’m very happy."

Faisal, 52, a Palestinian pilgrim from Israel, said he was praying for "all Muslims to be unified soon to liberate Al-Aqsa and Palestine."

The Saudi health ministry ferried 296 patients from local hospitals to Arafat to take part in the hajj, accompanied by a squadron of doctors and nurses.

Meanwhile volunteers were passing out thousands of free meals all around Arafat, donated by numerous Saudi charities and businesses.

The weather turned hot Thursday after heavy rains marred the first day of the hajj, stranding many latecomers on the road between Jeddah and Mecca and knotting up the eight kilometre (five mile) mass move from Mecca to Mina, halfway in between Mecca and Arafat.

Some pilgrims opted to skip the traditional stop in Mina because the buses carrying pilgrims over the distance were bogged down by the rainstorm.

Wednesday\’s rains killed 44 people in nearby Jeddah and another four in Mecca, according to the civil defence authority.

A 90-millimetre (3.5-inch) downpour flooded the roads and tunnels and brought down a few old houses in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, it said in a statement carried by SPA state news agency.

The Iranian action at Arafat came after Saudi authorities and clerics sternly warned in recent weeks that political acts during the pilgrimage were forbidden and would be dealt with toughly.

In 1987, Saudi police attempts to stifle a protest by Iranian pilgrims led to a riot in which 402 people died, including 275 Iranians.

Tensions rose this year in a war of words between Tehran and Riyadh, with Iran\’s leaders saying predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia would mistreat the 65,000 mainly Shiite Iranian pilgrims.

The impact of swine flu on the mass congregation of the Muslim faithful remained low. Four pilgrims, all suffering other afflictions, died from the A(H1N1) virus in Saudi hospitals last week.

But as of Wednesday the number of infections, at 67, remained much lower than anticipated, according to Saudi health officials.


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