244 Dead In Hajj Stampede

Thousands of Muslim pilgrims perform a symbolic stoning of the devil as they throw pebbles at a pillar on the middle of the third day of the hajj in Mina, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, March 28, 1999. AP

Nearly 250 Muslim worshipers died in a hajj stampede Sunday during the annual stoning of Satan ritual in one of the deadliest tragedies at the notoriously perilous ceremony.

The stampede, during a peak event of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj, lasted about a half-hour, Saudi officials said. There were 244 dead and hundreds of other worshippers injured, some critically, Hajj Minister Iyad Madani said.

"All precautions were taken to prevent such an incident, but this is God's will. Caution isn't stronger than fate," Madani said.

Most of the victims were pilgrims from inside the Saudi kingdom and many were not authorized to participate, he said.

In an effort to control the crowd of about 2 million, Saudi authorities sets quotas for pilgrims from each country and required its citizens to register.

The devil-stoning is the most animated ritual of the annual pilgrimage and often the most dangerous. Many pilgrims frantically throw rocks, shout insults or hurl their shoes at the pillars — acts that are supposed to demonstrate their deep disdain for the devil. But clerics frown upon such action, saying it's un-Islamic.

Last year, 14 pilgrims were trampled to death during the ritual and 35 died in a 2001 stampede. In 1998, 180 pilgrims died.

The annual hajj, which began Thursday, climaxed Saturday as some 2 million Muslim pilgrims listened to Saudi Arabia's top cleric denounce terrorists, calling them an affront to Islam. However, he defended the kingdom's strict interpretation of the faith.

Sheik Abdul Aziz al-Sheik said in his sermon there were those who claim to be holy warriors, but were shedding Muslim blood and destabilizing the nation.

"Is it holy war to shed Muslim blood? Is it holy war to shed the blood of non-Muslims given sanctuary in Muslim lands? Is it holy war to destroy the possession of Muslims," he said, adding that their actions gave enemies an excuse to criticize Muslim nations.

A large number of the victims of suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere have been Muslims.

Al-Sheik, who is widely respected in the Arab world as the foremost cleric in the country considered the birthplace of Islam, spoke at Namira Mosque in a televised sermon watched by millions of Muslims in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

The mosque is close to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon in 632.

In speaking about terrorists who killed fellow Muslims, al-Sheik was clearly referring to the prophet's final sermon, which contained the line: "Know that every Muslim is a Muslim's brother, and the Muslims are brethren. Fighting between them should be avoided."

Al-Sheik also criticized the international community, accusing it of attacking Wahhabism, the strict interpretation of Islam that is applied in Saudi Arabia: "This country is based on this religion and will remain steadfast on it."

After the sleepless night of prayer following the sermon, pilgrims gathered pebbles to throw at the pillars. Each threw seven times, chanting "bismillah" ("In the name of God") and "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great").

Calling America "the greatest Satan," Egyptian pilgrim Youssef Omar threw pebbles at one pillar where someone scrawled "USA."

From there, some pilgrims took off to the nearby holy city Mecca to perform the main "Tawaf," or the circling of the holy stone known as the Kaaba.

Security has been high during the hajj, with thousands of police guarding the roads and temporary camp city of Mina. Helicopters monitored the crowd from the air.

The stoning ritual also marked the first day of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, celebrated at the hajj and around the Muslim world with the slaughtering of a camel, cow or sheep. Meat is eaten and distributed to the poor.

The hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in a lifetime, is taking place after a series of suicide bombings and police shootouts with suspected terrorists in Saudi Arabia.

The bombings killed 51 people last year, including many Saudis, other Arabs and eight Americans. Muslims also have died in terror attacks in Turkey, Iraq, Morocco and elsewhere.
  • John Esterbrook

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