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God's will or man's error?

Hajj incidents raise new questions for faithful pilgrims to Mecca

God's will or man's error?

Was it God's will or human error that killed 439 in two separate incidents during this year's annual pilgrimage to Mecca? That's the question which many pilgrims were pondering as they bid the holy city farewell this weekend.

The hajj began on January 8, three days after the collapse of an aging hostel in the heart of Mecca killed 76 people, and ended Thursday with 363 pilgrims dead in a stampede at the entrance of the Jamarat bridge in Mina east of Mecca on the last day of the ritual stoning of the devil.

Although Saudi Arabia is no stranger to hajj stampedes, with 251 killed in 2004 and 1,426 in 1990, there are already signs that the latest one may stir a debate among the kingdom's leadership and the powerful religious establishment about modifying pilgrimage rites to prevent future tragedies.

On a street close to Abdul Aziz gate, one of the main entrances to Mecca's Grand Mosque, African children with missing limbs begged as pilgrims streamed by on their way to sunset prayers on Saturday.

"God decided they must die, there's nothing we can do about it," said Mohammed Musead, 53, an Algerian who was caught up in Thursday's stampede and pulled out four bodies with his own hands before fleeing for his life.

Nigerian Elias Eliasu, 32, called the stampede an "ibtila," or a test of Muslims' faith by God.

However 39-year-old Aisha Dumo, from Morocco cited the "ignorance" of many pilgrims, especially those from poor countries, as to how they should handle themselves during the hajj. "No doubt there were mistakes," said Dumo, who was far from the stampede but described her own experience in stoning the three pillars on the bridge that are supposed to symbolize the powers of evil.

"I kept tripping on garbage and I saw people throwing rocks instead of pebbles on the pillars as they screamed like mad."

The stoning rite is based on the story of Abraham. He is believed to have thrown pebbles at the devil who was taunting him as he led his son Ismail to the mountains near Mina to slaughter him as God commanded in a test of the prophet's faith.

Shifting the blame

Saudi authorities have blamed the stampede on the rush of 600,000 pilgrims amassed at the entrance of the bridge and on the unruly conduct of many among them, especially those carrying luggage.

"It is the fault of the Saudi government as they have no standards at all," charged Gul Mohammed, 53, a Briton of Pakistani origin living in northern England. "I blame them and nobody else."

He accused the authorities of being motivated by the lucrative revenue potential of the hajj without sufficiently planning for the growing number of pilgrims.

"These buildings should not exist because look at the amount of people passing here," said Mohammed as he pointed to two huge apartment towers being built meters from the Grand Mosque.

Before the start of this year's hajj, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said that 60,000 health, security and other personnel had been mobilized to prevent the kind of incidents that have marred the occasion in the past.

A "special plan" was promised to channel an estimated three million pilgrims through the Jamarat bridge and in fact the first two days of the stoning ritual were trouble-free.

Although the number of pilgrims that can come every year is regulated by a quota system for each Muslim country, based on the ratio of one pilgrim per one thousand of its population, authorities say they are helpless to prevent close to a million people from travelling here independently outside the quota system.

Authorities also say they must ensure that the expansion of facilities at sites like Mina remain within the limits of the "sacred boundaries" as interpreted by the religious establishment.

This has led hundreds of thousands of people to camp out on the streets and under the bridge in Mina creating many health and safety hazards.

Clerics also decide the timing and duration of rites like the stoning, which is supposed to start after noon prayers.

Prince Nayef urged clerics on Friday to reconsider allowing it to start several hours earlier to prevent congestion.

"This is a very important matter, they must protect Muslim lives," he said.

On the day of the stampede, Saudi media published comments by the kingdom's mufti, the highest religious authority, warning people not to begin stoning before the scheduled time.

"It would be a premature form of worship," said Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.