Saudi Arabia tries to create a safer hajj

Hundreds have died during the annual Muslim ritual, including 363 last week.

Saudi authorities are turning toward Islam and technology to prevent another tragedy like last week's stampede during the hajj pilgrimage that killed at least 363 people.

Interior Minister Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz this week called on Muslim clerics to find religious dispensations that would give pilgrims more time to perform the hajj stoning ritual, currently three days from noon until sunset, during which the stampede took place.

During the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the stoning ceremony has been the frequent scene of disaster. In 2004, 244 were killed in a stampede and in 1994 another 270 died.

"Islamic scholars must extrapolate solutions from the Koran ... in order for pilgrims to have more time for the stoning ritual ... it is their duty to save Muslims," Prince Nayef said in the al-Watan newspaper.

Some 3 million Muslims performed the hajj this year. Many Muslims save for years to travel to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage, after which their sins are believed to disappear. The hajj, a series of rituals in and around the holy city of Mecca and neighboring Mina, is a duty for every Muslim who is financially and physically capable.

Last Thursday's stampede started when a wave of pilgrims rushed forward at noon to pelt pebbles at three pillars, mimicking the stoning of the devil. Most pilgrims follow the tradition of Islam's prophet Mohammad and wait until noon to throw pebbles, as he did during hajj more than 1,400 years ago.

Allowing that ritual to be performed throughout the day, instead of just during the 5-1/2 hours between noon and sunset, would solve the issue of mass congestion and decrease the likelihood of stampedes, say analysts.

But the problem lies in differing views. Some members of the Saudi council of top clerics have approved extending the hours of the stoning ritual, but its head, grand mufti Abdul-Aziz al-Sheik, is against that. He says it contravenes Islamic law. Some believe that this rigidity is costing human lives.

Former judge and Islamic scholar Abdul-Aziz al-Qassim says the issue should be studied by the Islamic Fiqh Academy, the jurisprudence arm of the Organization for the Islamic Conference, an umbrella group of all Muslim countries. "People should not be allowed to die because [they are following] a tradition of the prophet when an alternative has not been explicitly banned in the religion," says Mr. Qassim.

An official at the Jeddah-based Islamic Fiqh Academy said Wednesday that the organization hoped to convene a conference on the issue within the year that would include scholars from throughout the Muslim world.

"We will study the issue of stoning before noon and hopefully issue a group fatwa to express our point of view," says Abdul-Qahar Qamar, an Islamic law scholar and researcher at the academy.

As it stands, hajj authorities are expected to move some 3 million people through an area the size of a football stadium, in the space of 5-1/2 hours, without anyone getting hurt, says Mohammad Idrees, a deputy at the Mecca-based Hajj Research Center, which oversees the safety of the hajj.

A ruling to allow pilgrims to throw their pebbles throughout the day would take care of most of the congestion in the Jamarat area which houses the pillars.

"If all the clerics were to agree and this issue is taken care of, it would solve 70 percent of the problem," Mr. Idrees says. According to Saudi officials, 600,000 pilgrims were squeezed in at the main ramp at the bridge that leads to the pillars at the time of the stampede.

That two-tiered bridge was demolished this week and a new one, four years in the planning, is being built. The new bridge has five levels and will double the space available for pilgrims, Idrees says.

According to eyewitnesses, pilgrims were sitting by their bags waiting for noon prayers so that they could perform the stoning ritual. When the call to prayers rang, people streamed toward the Jamarat. Some of those who had been sitting on their suitcases stumbled and fell. Thousands trampled many people underfoot.

Pakistani pilgrim Ehsan Iqbal, who witnessed the stampede, blames the Saudi security forces for the tragedy. "I didn't see any Saudi security forces anywhere. Pilgrims living on the streets packed up their camp and belongings and were walking with luggage. The crowd was swelling, and there were no Saudi guards managing or controlling the crowd or asking people with suitcases to put them away," he says.

He was standing on top of the bridge when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were waiting for the noon ritual. "That's the time the Saudi security forces should have acted. I told my wife, the security forces shouldn't let those people just wait like that, they should keep the crowds moving, circulating, and minutes later, the stampede started."

But security spokesman Mansour al-Turki denied any lapse on the part of the security forces. "There were 20,000 men in the area at the time. We can't bring in more men because that would only lead to more congestion. We have a lot of responsibilities during the hajj, and the safety of the pilgrims is one of them. But the pilgrims, too, need to be more vigilant about following the rules."

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