Why are fewer Muslims going on pilgrimage this year?

Muslims from around the world are gathering for a smaller pilgrimage than previous years, amid concerns about the conflicts in the countries neighboring Saudi Arabia. 

Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP
Muslim pilgrims attend Friday afternoon prayers outside the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday. The hajj is expected to start on Monday. More than 1 million pilgrims have already arrived for the annual pilgrimage.

The yearly Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia will include fewer pilgrims this year, as officials worry that the international event will be used for political gain. 

Saudi Arabia welcomed 3 million Muslims to the pilgrimage, called the Hajj, in past years, but officials have cut down on numbers for safety reasons, reported Reuters. The 1.2 million pilgrims who have already arrived in Mecca have been warned not to use the event for political reasons. 

"The security forces are ready to confront any irresponsible behavior that might pollute the purity of Hajj or endanger the lives of the guests of Allah," the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was quoted as saying by state media. 

Saudi Arabia is surrounded on nearly every side by conflict – Syria's ongoing civil war has spurred the rise of violent groups like Islamic State and fleeing refugees have crowded nearby countries. Yemen is engaged in a civil war, and Saudi Arabia has engaged in airstrikes to restore the former government. Palestinians have been clashing with Israeli government forces in Jerusalem, and Egypt is working to quell violent flareups. Saudi Arabia itself has experienced several terrorist attacks on mosques.

The pilgrims who have already arrived in Mecca gathered in the Islamic holy city's Grand Mosque for Friday prayers – and prayed for peace. Ali Saeed, a Syrian who escaped to Jordan, prayed that the hearts of rival leaders would be touched to stop the bloodshed.

"Will it ever end? God knows. I hope all our leaders can come to Mecca and share the same faith as all those people do," he told Reuters. 

One purpose of the Hajj is to do just that. A famous example of the potential for peaceful change in the international pilgrimage is that of Malcolm X. The American civil rights activist wrote that seeing the harmony among different races at the Hajj inspired him to give up racism and violence. 

"On this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions," he wrote in a letter from Mecca

The Hajj will begin on Monday, and the only incidents in Mecca thus far have been accidents. Last Friday, when hundreds of thousands had already arrived for the Hajj, a crane collapsed into the Grand Mosque, and 107 pilgrims died, while 200 were injured, reported Agence France-Presse. A hotel fire in Mecca forced 1,000 pilgrims to evacuate on Thursday, Al Jazeera reported. 

Making the Hajj at least once is a requirement for all Muslims who are physically and economically able. High demand for the Hajj means that the experience is restricted, with quotas for the number from each country that may attend a given Hajj. Sometimes governments or community groups sponsor poorer Muslims who want to go on a Hajj, and Muslims throughout the world celebrate during the Hajj even if they are not attending that year. 

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