12,000 American Muslims to make pilgrimage to Mecca

November 10, 2010

(RNS) Some 12,000 American Muslims are expected to join an estimated
2.5 million pilgrims in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca for the hajj,
the annual Islamic pilgrimage that this year runs between Nov. 14 and
18.


The number of pilgrims expected is about the same as in recent
years, said Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Arabian embassy in
Washington, D.C., which limits pilgrims to making the pilgrimage no more
than once every five years.


Islam requires followers who are physically and financially capable
to complete the hajj once in their lifetime.


Overcrowding and catastrophic stampedes have led Saudi authorities
to issue special hajj visas; since 1990, more than 2,500 pilgrims have
been killed in stampedes, while hundreds more die each year as a result
of sickness, heart attacks, traffic accidents and other incidents.


Most problems have occurred at an elevated platform known as the
Jamarat, from which pilgrims throw stones at walls representing the
devil. To ease overcrowding, Saudi authorities have gradually expanded
the Jamarat to five levels and added exits.


Despite efforts to limit the number of pilgrims, hundreds of
thousands of mainly Saudi residents still try to perform hajj without
permits. "Quite a few people get turned back because of overcrowding,"
said Al-Jubeir.


Many unauthorized pilgrims evade detection and camp out in the hills
surrounding Mecca, where Muslims believe Islam's prophet Muhammad
received his first revelation from God in 610 A.D. "It becomes a
sanitation nightmare," he said.


For American Muslims, the most difficult part of the journey may be
the return home. In recent years, many Muslims returning from travel
abroad have complained about religious profiling and lengthy searches
and questioning at airports and border crossings.


In response, Muslim civil rights groups have issued travel
advisories for pilgrims, telling them to expect questioning and advising
them what types of questions are legal, such as name and residency, and
which are not, including questions about religious or political beliefs.