Pilgrims streaming into Islam’s holy city for the annual hajj prayed for the 157,000 people killed in last month’s tsunami that devastated southern Asia, asking God to give survivors the courage to cope.
The tragedy weighed heavy as the spiritual journey geared up. Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim nation with 220 million people — was hit hardest by the natural disaster, but 200,000 Indonesians, the country’s quota, still were expected in Mecca.
One Indonesian man spoke of his surprise over the dozens of strangers who noticed his nationality printed on the pouch around his neck and approached to offer condolences for the more than 100,000 Indonesians who died Dec. 26. Another Indonesian found a quiet spot to pray for a lost friend.
Mohamed Saleh, a teacher from Jakarta stood outside the city’s Grand Mosque and prayed, his hands raised and his eyes filled with tears.
“I have lost a friend in the tsunami, and I pray for him and the souls of all those that have perished,” said Saleh, 50. “I pray that God will mend broken hearts and give them courage to overcome the grief.”
Inside the mosque, pilgrims circled the kaaba, a cubic stone structure toward which Muslims turn for prayers five times a day. Pilgrims circle the kaaba to start and finish hajj rituals, which can be stretched over days but peak with prayers on Mount Arafat, where Islam’s founding Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon.
Two million Muslims perform the pilgrimage each year, a once-in-a-lifetime duty of all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it. Many go repeatedly; it is believed to cleanse the soul and wipe away sin. By Friday, traffic into Mecca was bumper to bumper.
Security was high throughout Mecca, where Saudi officials try to prevent stampedes or other accidents as well as watch for possible terror attacks. At checkpoints several miles outside the holy city, officers stopped cars randomly, peering into trunks, shining mirrors to look for explosives in undercarriages and checking IDs.
Fear of epidemics
Saudi Health Minister Hamad al-Manie told reporters his ministry is watching for any signs of epidemics, particularly among pilgrims from tsunami-hit areas. Thus far, none had been spotted.
Sheik Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, prayer leader of the Grand Mosque, urged worshippers to use the hajj to remember that the Muslim nation’s ills and weaknesses stem from division.
“Say special prayers for your weak brothers in the blessed land of Palestine, and the country of the two rivers (Iraq), and the other countries struck by earthquakes and floods,” Al-Sudais said, referring to the tsunami victims.
About 100 Indonesian women, walking together, many arm in arm, wore headscarves identifying them as from Aceh, the devastated northern region of Sumatra island.
At the word “tsunami,” several made wave-like gestures and gave looks of horror — opening their eyes wide and covering their mouths with their hands. Others sighed before all melted into the crowd.
Punti Aji, a 29-year-old banker from Ban Dung, Indonesia, said he has been praying in particular for God to protect orphans of the tsunami from child traffickers.
“I’ve been praying for the dead and their families, but I’m really concerned about the children who have been orphaned by the disaster,” Aji said.
Some of the pilgrims thanked Islamic countries for sending aid.
Abdullah Sharfuddin, 21, from Jakarta, praised Saudi generosity, noting the $84 million raised for victims in a recent telethon.
Palestinian-American Awadhallah Mohamed, 46, from the West Bank, said he also has been praying for the victims. He noted many who died were Muslims, but added: “We are all humans and we have to pray for humanity.”