Pilgrims arrive in Mecca for haj amid regional turmoil
By Mahmoud Habboush
MECCA (Reuters) - Millions of pilgrims arrive this week in Mecca for Islam's annual haj pilgrimage, which starts on Wednesday, with Saudi authorities warning they will stop any disruptive protests over the conflict in Syria.
The Grand Mosque, the focal point of the Islamic faith, was already teeming with joyful pilgrims at dawn on Monday, wearing the simple white folds of cloth prescribed for haj, many of them having slept on the white marble paving outside.
"I feel proud to be here because it's a visual message that Muslims are united. People speaking in all kind of languages pray to the one God," said Fahmi Mohammed al-Nemr, 52, from Egypt.
Haj must be performed at least once in their lifetime by all Muslims capable of making the expensive, difficult journey, a duty that applies equally to Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims at a time of tension between Islam's main sects.
Saudi leaders have emphasized it is a strictly religious occasion and they are prepared to deal with any troublemaking.
"If anything happens it will be brought under control," Interior Minister Prince Ahmed said on Saturday after attending a Mecca march-past where troops paraded water cannon, teargas launchers and even truck-mounted machine guns.
Authorities are keenly aware of past episodes of violence at haj, such as in 1979, when attackers seized the Grand Mosque, beginning a two-week siege that left hundreds dead.
Despite Saudi Arabia, which is mostly Sunni, locking horns with regional rival Iran, which is mostly Shi'ite, over the conflict in Syria and other disputes, the minister played down the risks of politically motivated disruption. Continued...