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Work in Full Swing to Head Off Hajj Stampedes
 

By Fawaz Mohammad, IOL Correspondent

RIYADH, January 10 (IslamOnline.net) – With some two million Muslims expected to perform hajj this year, Saudi government plans are in full swing to head off potential tragic stampedes and make the holy rituals easier for the faithful.

A giant project to develop the Jamrat bridge where pilgrims amass to stone pillars symbolizing Satan is near completion.

After a stampede tragedy last hajj which killed 251 pilgrims, Saudi King Fahd bin Abdel Aziz ordered turning the bridge to four-storey.

The government, subsequently, planned a 533-million-dollar redevelopment of the 272-meter wide area.

Hajj Minister Iyad Bin Amin Madani said the new changes will further see new emergency exits at the place where the pilgrims throw Jamrat Al-Aqabah.

The plans further include changing the circular shape of the Jamrat fence into oval and the horizontal pillars into vertical.

Pilgrims hurl seven pebbles from behind a fence or from the overhead bridge every day for three days at each of the three 18-metre (58-foot) high concrete pillars.

Surveillance Cameras

Saudi authorities have further installed four surveillance cameras around the Jamrat bridge to nib potential stampedes in the bud.

Some 700 TV sets have also been set up in camps in Mina to broadcast the rituals live for the white-robbed pilgrims in different languages.

Abedl Fattah Bin Abdel Shakour, the director of the Hajj Ministry’s department in Makkah, said multilingual leaflets and bulletins will be distributed among the pilgrims to raise their awareness of the good manners during the spiritual journey.

He said pilgrims will be allowed gradually to throw the pebbles with 60,000 expected to perform the ritual at the first hour.

There have been many deadly stampedes in the past. In 2003, 14 pilgrims, including six women, were killed during the first day of the stoning ritual, 35 in 2001 and 118 in 1998.

The worst toll was in July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede in a tunnel in Mina.

An Egyptian scholar put forward last year a couple of creative ideas  to alleviate the too much crowding in hajj season, suggesting making some of the rituals automated.

Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can physically and financially afford the trip must perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, once in their lifetime.

Official figures put the total number of pilgrims performing last year's hajj at 1,892,710, with 1,419,706 from abroad and 473,004 Saudis and other Muslim residents of the kingdom.

Anti-Smoking Campaign

The Saudi Health Ministry, meanwhile, will capitalize on the gathering of a sea of Muslims during hajj and step up its anti-smoking campaign for the second straight year.

Entitled “Let’s Make Makkah and Madinah Free from Tobacco,” the effort is focused on keeping the pilgrims posted on the serious health and economic consequences of smoking.

The campaign organizes direct meetings with the pilgrims in hospitals and health centers in addition to distributing anti-smoking fliers.

The event coincided with a landmark decision taken by municipality of Madinah on January 1, which banned the selling of tobacco and its ingredients around the Prophet’s Mosque and at the shops overlooking it.

The municipality also decided to stop issuing licenses for cigarette-selling shops and gave the existing ones a deadline until the expiry of their current permits to either change the activity or face closure.

The government banned last year smoking in public places, schools, universities, health and sports institutions as well as public transport. Violators are fined 200 Saudi Rials (US$53) on the spot.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s fourth largest importer of cigarettes with the annual consumption running at 15 billion cigarettes and the number of smokers put at six million.

Official estimates indicate that some 23,000 people die annually of smoking-related diseases. 

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