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Over one million pilgrims gather in Makkah for Hajj pilgrimage

MAKKAH: Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have flocked to the Saudi holy city of Makkah for the Hajj pilgrimage.

One of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings officially begins on Friday, with Saudi officials emphasizing a focus on prayers. The Gulf kingdom’s minister in charge of religious pilgrimages, Tawfiq al-Rabiah, has warned that “no political activity” will be tolerated.

Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, must be performed at least once by all Muslims who are able. As of Wednesday, around 1.2 million pilgrims had already arrived in Saudi Arabia from abroad. Last year, more than 1.8 million people completed the Hajj rites, with about 90 percent coming from overseas, mainly from other Arab countries and Asia.

Israel’s intense military operations in Gaza have “created a lot of anger in the broader Muslim world,” making this year’s Hajj a “test” for Saudi leaders, said Umer Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham. “Protests or performances are likely by individuals or groups of pilgrims, and the Saudis understand this is a slippery slope,” he said. “For Saudi rulers, conducting Hajj is a matter of prestige but also a test of their governance.”

Pilgrimage Politics The ongoing Gaza conflict erupted after Hamas’s October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli official figures. The Israeli army then launched a devastating offensive on the Gaza Strip, resulting in at least 37,164 deaths, the majority being civilians, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Saudi King Salman issued a decree on Monday to host 1,000 pilgrims “from the families of martyrs and the wounded from the Gaza Strip,” bringing the total number of Palestinian pilgrims hosted this year to 2,000, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

The Hajj is a source of legitimacy for Saudi rulers, with King Salman’s title including “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in Makkah and Madinah. Yet, the Saudi government also “uses the pilgrimage to control Muslims worldwide,” potentially barring critics from performing an essential religious rite, said Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi academic and opposition figure based in London. “The Saudis will increase their control over the pilgrims to prevent any mobilization around support for Gaza. It remains to be seen whether the pilgrims will respect Saudi wishes.”

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I am an experienced writer, analyst, and author. My exposure in English journalism spans more than 28 years. In the past, I have been working with daily The Muslim (Lahore Bureau), daily Business Recorder (Lahore/Islamabad Bureaus), Daily Times, Islamabad, daily The Nation (Lahore and Karachi). With daily The Nation, I have served as Resident Editor, Karachi. Since 2009, I have been working as a Freelance Writer/Editor for American organizations.

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