RIYADH: Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority approved yesterday government plans to restructure Islam's holiest sites after 251 Muslims were killed in a stampede during this year's haj pilgrimage.
“The council agreed on the need to develop Jamarat area to protect pilgrims,” said the council of senior scholars, headed by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, in a religious edict carried on state television.
The council, headed by the kingdom's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, had met in Mecca yesterday for emergency talks.
The stampede in which pilgrims were trampled or suffocated to death as they clamoured to stone three pillars representing the devil has provoked King Fahd to announce a major renovation project for Mecca and nearby Medina.
King Fahd had issued a decree ordering the formation of a high-level committee to draft a new layout for Mecca and Mena after Sunday's disaster when pilgrims were crushed as hundreds of thousands of faithful surged towards Jamarat Bridge in Mena to throw stones at pillars representing the devil.
The haj has seen deadly stampedes almost every year. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a pedestrian tunnel at Mecca. Last year 14 people were trampled to death.
Saudi Arabia has defended its organisation of the haj and blamed the stampede on frenzied pilgrims, saying it tried to avert crowding by asking them to perform the stoning ritual in an orderly manner and at different times.
Muslims stone three pillars which they believe mark the spot where the devil appeared to biblical patriarch Abraham.
A Saudi newspaper said on Wednesday the plan includes spending US$533mil (RM2.02bil) to build four-storey bridges over the stoning area to boost capacity to 160,000 people.
One bridge already exists over the 272m wide area to try to ease the crush of the faithful.
Throwing small stones at each of three 18m tall pillars in the Mina valley outside Mecca on three successive days is one of the main rituals of the annual haj that attracted some two million Muslims this year
Just before making the announcement by the ulamas, state television dedicated almost half an hour to broadcasting for the first time previously recorded footage showing thousands of security officers at work at the site of the three pillars a day after the deadly incident.
A presenter was seen interviewing security officers who spoke about their hard work and lamented the indiscipline of some pilgrims who brought their luggage into the stoning area causing the deadly stampede. – Agencies
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