Inside the Middle East
November 29, 2009
Posted: 734 GMT

The Iraqi Football Association has been banned from playing in international matches. CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom reports.

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Posted: 733 GMT

Amir Ahmed, CNN

Mecca, Saudi Arabia (CNN) - Chanting "Allahu Akbar" - God is Greater than any - more than 2 million pilgrims crossed new pedestrian bridges Saturday to perform one of the last rituals of the Hajj season.

Jamarat is a re-enactment of an event when Prophet Abraham stoned the devil and rejected his temptations, according to Muslim traditions.

The ritual stoning of three pillars, which occurs in the tent city of Mina - about two miles from Mecca, was the scene of stampedes and many deaths in the 1980s and 1990s as pilgrims passed a crowded bottleneck area leading to the small pillars on the ground.

But this year the Saudi government completed a new project that avoids past congestion at the site. The government has erected three massive pillars and completed a $1.2 billion, five-story bridge nearby where pilgrims can toss stones. Authorities and pilgrims say it's a roomier atmosphere and more efficient way to accommodate the faithful.

"Everything went fine so far," Col. Khakled Qarar Mohammadi, head of the emergency forces at Jamarat, told CNN.

"It is an immense responsibility that we had to deal with. About 3 million pilgrims move in a small geographic area at the same time wanting to do the same ritual. So we have been preparing for this for years now."

Irtiza Hasan, a pilgrim from the United States, said all went well at the ceremony.

"The only incident I saw was that there were some handicapped women who were turned away in fears that they get hurt."

But Mohammadi said, "There are 10 vans on the second floor especially designated to serve the elderly and handicapped. Each van can take up to 14 pilgrims."

As a measure to alleviate harm, according to Muslim traditions, the elderly and the handicapped can appoint someone else to stone for them.

The five-story Jamarat bridge is air-conditioned at 19 degrees Centigrade, or 66 Fahrenheit, throughout the day and backed by water sprinklers that can reduce the temperature to about 29 degrees C, or 84 F. The bridge is designed to allow the addition of seven more levels to hold as many as 5 million pilgrims in the future if the need arises.

According to authorities, the bridge is 950 meters (1,039 yards) long and 80 meters (87 yards) wide. Each floor is 12 meters (13 yards) high with three tunnels and 12 entrances and 12 exits in six directions. It has a helicopter pad for emergencies.

According to Mohammadi, the project has 509 advanced closed-circuit television cameras monitoring pilgrims' movements. Those cameras feed into the main operations room, which oversees the Jamarat Bridge and the surrounding areas - all screened by dozens of security officers on 72 monitors at the operation room.

The stoning ritual is done over at least two days, where pilgrims stone three pillars at Mina - believed to be where the Prophet Abraham stoned the devil when he tried to dissuade him from obeying God's orders to slaughter his son. According to tradition, the event was a test from God, who gave Abraham a ram to slaughter instead.

The last ritual that marks the end of Hajj is when pilgrims go from Mina to Mecca to make a last visit to al-Masjid al-Haram, Islam's holiest site, before going back home.

The ritual is called Tawaf al-Wada'a - or farewell circumambulation in the holy mosque. It's where pilgrims go around the black cube seven times counter-clockwise asking that their Lord accept their pilgrimage and grant them another visit to the holy city.

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Filed under: Hajj •Saudi Arabia

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November 26, 2009
Posted: 544 GMT

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November 25, 2009
Posted: 747 GMT

CNN's Isha Sesay explains why millions of Muslims make a pilgrimage to the Hajj each year.

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Posted: 742 GMT

By Daniela Deane, CNN

London, England (CNN) - Forget stampedes, fires and terrorist attacks. The big fear this year concerning the Hajj, the annual millions-strong pilgrimage to Mecca, is swine flu.

Swine flu has already killed four pilgrims this year, Saudi Arabia's health ministry announced Saturday, almost a week before the pilgrimage's peak.

Three of the victims - a woman from Morocco and men from Sudan and India - were in their seventies. The fourth was a 17-year-old girl from Nigeria.

The Health Ministry said none had been vaccinated against the H1N1 virus - despite their recommendations - and all had underlying health problems, including cancer and respiratory illness. A ministry spokesman said more than two dozen other cases had been detected among arriving pilgrims.

Latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) show the virus has killed 6,750 people worldwide.

Skittish health officials in Saudi Arabia have worked hard to quell fears that the pilgrimage - the biggest yearly congregation of people in the world - will contribute to the global spread of the virus, inviting international health experts to make recommendations and screening pilgrims as they arrive.

During the climax of the pilgrimage, crowds can reach a density of up to seven people every 10 square feet - the perfect storm of flu transmission.

The kingdom, though, stopped short of imposing any travel bans to Saudi Arabia, which earns billions of dollars a year from the pilgrimage.

"Hajj is a major responsibility [for us]," Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, security spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, told CNN. "We are prepared for everything."

Performing the Hajj by traveling to Mecca and Medina is an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it at least once during their lifetime. Al-Turki said up to three million are expected this year.

The Hajj season - dates vary depending on the sighting of the new moon - peaks between Wednesday and Saturday this year, just as the winter flu season gets underway in the Northern hemisphere.

Dr. Ziad Memish, deputy Saudi Health Minister, told CNN the kingdom invited 25 international experts, including specialists from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and the WHO, to advise them on how to deal with the pandemic. He said the team inspected airports, seaports, and other facilities and strategies Saudi Arabia had set up to deal with any outbreak.

Memish said the CDC recommended setting up a mobile alert system used in the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the U.S. where mobile devices will document any suspected flu cases via GPS to a command center at the Ministry of Health.

He said the experts also recommended the country continue using thermal screening at arrival points to test pilgrims for fevers. If a pilgrim exhibits symptoms, they will be quarantined until the symptoms disappear.

Memish told CNN a team from the CDC will be staying throughout the Hajj to help the government deal with any problems.

Saudi health authorities ordered 11 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine, giving priority to government workers working at the Hajj. They recommended pilgrims be vaccinated before coming - although clearly, many have not complied.

Hundreds of people have died in recent years in stampedes, fires and demonstrations. The biggest stampede killed 1,426 people in 1990 in a tunnel leading to a holy site.

Political extremism has also claimed lives.

In 1979, 151 people were killed and more than 500 wounded after Saudi security forces stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca to free pilgrims held hostage by Islamist militants. In 1987, 402 people were killed, according to Saudi official figures, when security forces tried to break up an anti-U.S. demonstration by Iranian pilgrims.

During the Hajj, pilgrims throw stones at pillars representing the devil. They circle a black holy stone in Mecca's Grand Mosque seven times. They ready themselves by abstaining from sex, hunting, killing or arguing.

The stoning has proved the most dangerous of the rituals. But bridges have been built at four levels at the site to help prevent a recurrence of fatal stampedes, Al-Turki told CNN.

Al-Turki said the Saudis depend on "a lot of technology" to monitor the crowds, including CCTV cameras and an early warning system that constantly measures the density of crowds in different locations.

He said U.S.-made Sikorsky S-92 helicopters, introduced last year, monitor the crowd situation from above, sending pictures back to command and control centers.

He said new fire-resistant tents have drastically cut down the number of fires.

This year, though, the Saudis are more worried about flu than anything else.

In a bid to stem any outbreak, Deputy Health Minister Memish said a religious Fatwa has been issued saying face masks are acceptable this Hajj, as are alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Usually, stitched clothes are prohibited on the body as is all contact with alcohol.

Not all pilgrims have gotten the news though.

"You can't wear something to cover your face for the women," said pilgrim Lateefa Khan, traveling to Mecca from the U.S. "The face has to be shown."

Despite the flu fears, Khan said she's thrilled to be going.

"I am leaving my kids behind so I can concentrate fully on doing Hajj," she told CNN. "I'm looking forward to focusing all my time on worshipping."

Amir Ahmed contributed to this report.

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November 23, 2009
Posted: 725 GMT

CNN's Ben Wedeman reports on how China is helping Egypt get behind the cheaper wheel.

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November 22, 2009
Posted: 728 GMT

Police in Egypt block protesters from the Algerian embassy after a contentious soccer match. CNN's Ben Wedeman reports.

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November 18, 2009
Posted: 1455 GMT
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November 14, 2009
Posted: 726 GMT

Filed under: Gaza •Video

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Posted: 703 GMT

By James Montague, CNN

Al Ram, West Bank (CNN) - The Faisal al Husseini football stadium was packed, two hours before kick off, with a noisy sea of Palestinian flags and white hijabs.

Jordan's captain charges down the wing as they take control of the match. Both teams have Christian and Muslim player, some of whom cover when they play. Photo: James Montague/CNN.
Jordan's captain charges down the wing as they take control of the match. Both teams have Christian and Muslim player, some of whom cover when they play. Photo: James Montague/CNN.

Football matches are always a big deal in the West Bank, but this game was more significant than most. 10,000 women had flocked to the stadium, on the outskirts of East Jerusalem and a mere few meters from the separation barrier that snakes around the West Bank, to watch a historic football match few would have believed possible just a few years ago: the Palestinian women's national team were to play Jordan in their first ever home international.

Both teams gave laps of honor before the start of the game to mark an occasion that is rare in the Middle East. Football is hugely popular amongst women in the region but the development of the game has largely been held back by a social conservatism that disapproves of women playing what are deemed 'men's' sports.

In Kuwait, attempts to set up a women's national team was met with outrage in the country's parliament. The move was halted after Waleed al Tabtabae, a hard line Islamist MP who chairs a committee charged with weeding out 'phenomena strange to society' decided that a women's football team was 'un-Islamic'.

"Committee members expressed their indignation...and total rejection of the idea of the women's football team on the grounds that football is not suitable for women," Tabtabae told the Kuwait Times.

The UAE has only this year launched its own national team. A handful of teams exist in Saudi Arabia, although they are confined to the more liberal university campuses and have to be played in front of small, women-only crowds. In Iran women are banned from attending football matches and have to wear the hijab when they play, even in tournaments abroad.

The Palestinian team has had its own, unique problems to deal with. Set up in 2003 at Bethlehem University, Israeli movement restrictions meant it was impossible to practice on the West Bank's sole grass pitch in Jericho. Instead, they had to train on a concrete handball court and play against local boy's teams. Read full article

Filed under: Jordan •Sports •West Bank •Women

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