MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - More than two million Muslim pilgrims thronged holy Mount Arafat near Mecca on Monday, praying for a safe haj after a hostel collapse and warnings of a possible spread of deadly bird flu.
Many pilgrims, weary from the night's trek to Mount Arafat from Mena, outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca, lay on the sidewalks to rest and pause in prayer.
Muslims believe God will hear their prayers if they are made within the sacred zone of Mount Arafat, the site of Prophet Mohammad's last sermon 1,400 years ago.
"I have a cold, I hope God cures me and I hope it's not bird flu," said Saeeda, a 47-year-old woman from Djibouti, resting from the heat by the side of the road in the shade.
Health experts have warned the huge crowds could create the conditions for a pandemic strain of bird flu to emerge.
Saudi Arabia says it has spent 25 million riyals ($6.7 million) on Tamiflu, a drug that can reduce the severity of the current bird flu strain if taken within days of symptoms appearing.
Three children in the east of Turkey, which has a large haj contingent, have died of the highly potent H5N1 strain which has moved westwards to Ankara over the past week. Many pilgrims come from Asian countries, where 74 people have died since 2003.
"I'm not afraid of bird flu here because I've put my faith in God, though back home I am scared," said Indonesian pilgrim Thuraya, 38. "There's a risk someone brings it with them here, but God is great."
The deadly virus is hard for people to catch and is almost invariably transmitted by close contact with infected poultry.
Saudi Arabia has deployed 60,000 security men in an effort to avoid deadly stampedes or any attacks by Islamist militants fighting the U.S.-allied Saudi royal family.
The country's top cleric praised the Saudi royals for staging the haj each year in an address to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at Arafat.
"For more than 80 years this state has been in charge of the haj and the two holy mosques (in Mecca and Medina), and its services get better every year, so may God bless them," Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh said at afternoon prayers.
CLERIC CONDEMNS TERRORISM
He also condemned terrorism and said it was not a phenomenon limited to Islamic countries. "Nations have severely wronged Islam when they limited their understanding of 'terrorism' to this religion and its people," he said.
Many of the pilgrims prayed for Muslims in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Iraq, wracked by civil strife since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
They also remembered the 76 people who died in a Mecca hostel collapse on Thursday. The authorities were taken by surprise when the hostel, which was only 30 years old, fell during the midday bustle of a narrow market street.
"I am praying for a safe haj and for serenity and blessings for all Muslims, especially in Iraq and Palestine," said Afaf, 30, also from Djibouti. "I also pray to God that he accept as martyrs those poor souls who died in the collapse."
The tragedy was embarrassing for Saudi Arabia, whose legitimacy in the eyes of many Muslims rests on its ability to host some 2.5 million haj pilgrims every year. The government has promised to find out the cause and King Abdullah has said the survivors will finish their haj at the state's expense.
The pilgrimage has been marred by other tragedies in recent years. Some 250 pilgrims died in a stampede in 2004 during the stoning of pillars that represent the devil.
The government has reorganised access to the site at Mena, where pilgrims will stay for three days from Tuesday, and promised to remove pilgrim squatters who often camp there.
Overnight, pilgrims move back to Mena for the pillar-stoning rites, which begin with the Eid al-Adha holiday on Tuesday.
The gruelling five-day haj is a duty for every Muslim at least once in their lifetime.
Did you find this article insightful?