Heavy rains in Saudi delay Muslim Hajj pilgrims

Pilgrims told to stay in Jeddah until motorway reopens

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The annual Hajj pilgrimage began with delays for thousands of Muslims stuck in the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Wednesday after heavy rain forced the closure of a motorway to Islam's holy city of Mecca.

Stranded pilgrims waited in the kingdom's western city where most arrive and where rain has flooded many houses and streets.

"We're stuck because of the water and rain. God willing, everything will be okay," said Hakan, a Turkish pilgrim from Istanbul as he waited for a bus to Mecca.

Some 1.6 million pilgrims have come to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, the world's largest regular religious gathering and a duty for all Muslims to perform at least once if possible.

Pilgrims from within Saudi Arabia are set to raise the total above 2.5 million, posing logistical and health challenges for the authorities.

Officials appealed to pilgrims to stay in Jeddah until the motorway is re-opened.

In central Mecca, pilgrims with umbrellas walked the ritual path seven times around the Kaaba, the ancient cube-shaped shrine which Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.

Some worried they would be unable to spend the night in a tent camp in a valley in Mina as they follow the route Prophet Muhammad took 14 centuries ago.

"We are staying in tents for now. Heavy rain turned red-carpeted corridors into streams of water with empty cans of soft drinks floating," said Zohra Nasef, from Morocco and on her second Hajj.

We're stuck because of the water and rain. God willing, everything will be okay

Turkish pilgrim

Precautions

Authorities have improved facilities to ease the flow of pilgrims, particularly around the area where they throw stones at pillars symbolizing the rejection of the devil's temptation. In 2006, 362 people were crushed to death there, the worst Hajj tragedy in 16 years.

Officials are also trying to prevent a spread of the H1N1 virus during the crowded ritual. At least four pilgrims have died of swine flu since the beginning of the Hajj season.

The kingdom has urged Muslims over 65 and under 12 as well as people with chronic diseases and pregnant women not to perform the ritual this year.

Several countries have put restrictions on their pilgrims and Tunisia has banned citizens from going altogether.

This year, the mainly Sunni Muslim kingdom is battling Shiite Yemeni rebels after they raided its territory, an issue that raises fears of possible protests by fellow Shiite Muslims during the rituals.

Riyadh earlier this month warned against any attempt to politicize the pilgrimage. Some 100,000 security staff are on duty in Mecca in western Saudi Arabia.

In 1987, a rally by pilgrims against Israel and the United States led to clashes with Saudi security forces in which 402 people, mostly Iranians, died.