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Sunday, March 29, 1998 Published at 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK


Soviet Muslims to make Hajj courtesy of King Fahd
image: [ The Kaaba is the focal point of the Hajj ]
The Kaaba is the focal point of the Hajj

Nearly a million pilgrims have already arrived in Saudi Arabia for the religious ritual, which will reach its climax on April 6th. Our correspondent Frank Gardner reports from Dubai on an event which has often been marred by politics and human tragedy:

According to Saudi state radio, King Fahd will pay the expenses of around 1,500 pilgrims from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and other countries formerly belonging to the Soviet Union, as they make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

[ image: King Fahd of Saudi Arabia: difficult to keep politics and religion apart]
King Fahd of Saudi Arabia: difficult to keep politics and religion apart
Although it is a religious duty for every Muslim to make the ritual journey to the birthplace of Islam once in a lifetime, such an international gathering can rarely be divorced from politics.

In the past, Iranian pilgrims have often tried to stage banned political demonstrations. In 1987 this led to a riot and over 400 deaths when the Saudi police opened fire.

With both Iraq and Libya subjected to UN air embargoes, there is always the vexing question of how to get their pilgrims to Mecca. In the past few days Iraq has opted to transport its 3,000 pilgrims by bus, while Libya has once again defied sanctions by flying a plane-load of pilgrims to the Saudi port of Jeddah.

[ image: The Hajj has seen tragedy on more than one occasion]
The Hajj has seen tragedy on more than one occasion
But this year the greatest attention is likely to be paid to safety, after last year's fire destroyed 70,000 tents and claimed over 300 lives. The Saudi authorities say they have issued a number of fire-resistant tents made of fibreglass.

They've also banned all cooking-fires except at designated central kitchens. But with up to two-million pilgrims expected in the first week of April, the Saudi police will be hard-pushed to keep watch over everyone.

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