Muslims gather at Mecca for hajj

  • 19/09/2015
An aerial view shows Muslim worshippers praying at the Grand Mosque (Reuters)
An aerial view shows Muslim worshippers praying at the Grand Mosque (Reuters)

Pilgrims from across the world have begun massing in Saudi Arabia for the hajj, undeterred by a crane collapse that killed 108 people at Islam's holiest site.

More than 1.2 million faithful have arrived for the annual hajj, which begins on Tuesday (local time) against a backdrop of increased jihadi violence, a surge of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus and with the kingdom at war in Yemen.

From all races and ages, they flocked into the Grand Mosque, where they prayed, some silently in tears and others loudly in groups carrying their country's flag.

The hajj is among the five pillars of Islam and every capable Muslim must perform the pilgrimage at least once.

Previously marred by stampedes and fires that killed hundreds, it had been largely incident-free for the past decade after safety improvements.

But on September 11, during severe winds, a construction crane toppled into a courtyard of the Grand Mosque.

Saudis, Iranians, Nigerians, Malaysians, Indonesians and Indians were among the dead.

About 400 more people were injured, but it has not stopped pilgrims carrying out their rituals.

"Do you see the number of people here? Do you think they are fearful? It is quite the opposite. People here have faith in God and perceive those that died as martyrs," said Amin al-Rahman of Bangladesh.

The crane was one of several on a multibillion-dollar expansion to accommodate increasing numbers of faithful.

While the pilgrims will not notice it, they are arriving in a country at war.

Since March, the kingdom has led an Arab coalition conducting air strikes and supporting local forces in Yemen against Shi'ite Huthi rebels.

At least 61 Saudi soldiers and civilians have been killed since March in shelling and skirmishes on the Saudi frontier with Yemen.

Thousands more people have died inside Yemen.

The Islamic State group, which has carried out widespread atrocities and considers Shi'ites to be heretics, has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq.

IS has also killed dozens of people this year in bombings at Shi'ite mosques in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Kuwait.

Such attacks "can't be written off completely", said Andrew Hammond, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations' Middle East and North Africa program.

"I think it's far more likely that IS would use hajj to recruit and spread their message," Hammond said.

A challenge again facing the hajj is potential transmission of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

The capital Riyadh saw a jump in infections last month.

Saudi Arabia is the country worst affected by MERS, with 528 deaths since the virus appeared in 2012.