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Pilgrims scale Mount Arafat in high point of biggest Covid-era Haj

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Huge crowds of pilgrims started praying on Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat early on Friday, the high point of the biggest Haj pilgrimage since the pandemic forced drastic cuts in numbers for two years in a row.

The worshippers, capped at one million including 850,000 from abroad chosen by lottery, spent the night at camps in the valley of Mina, seven kilometres from Makkah’s Grand Mosque.

In the early hours of Friday, they converged on Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) delivered his final sermon, for the most important of the Haj rituals.

They will stay all day at the site, praying and reciting the Quran.

Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters
Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters

After sunset, they will head to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they will sleep under the stars before performing the symbolic “stoning of the devil” ceremony on Saturday.

This year’s Haj is taking place against the backdrop of a resurgence of Covid-19 in the region, with some Gulf countries tightening restrictions to keep outbreaks in check.

All participants were required to submit proof of full vaccination and negative PCR tests. Upon reaching Mina on Thursday, they were handed small bags containing masks and sanitisers.

Pilgrims walk under sprinklers as they make their way for prayers outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's Makkah. — AFP
Pilgrims walk under sprinklers as they make their way for prayers outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s Makkah. — AFP

The Haj, usually one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings, is among the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.

In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world took part, as in previous years.

But the coronavirus outbreak has since forced Saudi authorities to dramatically downsize the Haj. Just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom participated in 2021, up from a few thousand in 2020.

Sun and tears

The pilgrimage can be physically draining even in ideal conditions, but worshippers this year have faced an added challenge: scorching sun and temperatures rising to 42 degrees Celsius.

Islam forbids men from wearing hats once the rites start, and many have been seen shielding themselves with umbrellas, prayer mats and even, in one case, a small bucket filled with water.

Women, meanwhile, are obliged to cover their heads with scarves.

On the mountain Friday morning, many of the worshippers wept as they prayed, and carried umbrellas in preparation for the high temperatures later in the day.

Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters
Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters

Extreme conditions

“We can tolerate (the heat). We are here for the Haj. The more we tolerate, the more our pilgrimage is accepted,” Laila, a 64-year-old Iraqi pilgrim who gave only her first name, told AFP in Makkah before reaching the mount.

Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters
Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters

Saudi officials have touted their preparations for the extreme conditions, highlighting the hundreds of hospital beds allocated for heat stroke patients and the “large number of misting fans” they have provided.

A truck has also been allocated to distribute umbrellas, water bottles and small fans.

Nevertheless, the National Centre for Meteorology, which has set up an office in Mina, is sending warnings to pilgrims on their mobile phones, urging them to avoid outdoor rituals at certain times of the day, especially at noon.

Pilgrims pray on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj. — Reuters
Pilgrims pray on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj. — Reuters

On Saturday, pilgrims will take part in the “stoning”, the last major ritual of this year’s Haj.

This ritual has in past years led to deadly stampedes, as hundreds of thousands of participants converge on a small space.

After the stoning ritual, pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque in Makkah to perform a final “tawaf” or circling of the Kaaba. Eidul Azha marks the end of Haj.

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Senate Session: Senate Proceeds With Debate On Important National Issues

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Today, the Senate reconvened in the Parliament House in Islamabad, with Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani presiding.

The House has persisted in debating matters of national significance.

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TTP and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar battle in Loralai, raising tensions

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The conflict between Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has intensified, with a violent altercation taking place on the evenings of February 15 and 16.

A top Jamaat-ul-Ahrar commander known as Qari Ismail or Ziaur Rahman was critically injured in this battle during a lethal attack in the Lala Pul neighborhood of District Loralai.

The confrontation between rival factions Target Killing and Dharo is part of an ongoing battle, other Jamaat-ul-Ahrar members have verified. Originating from the Khyber area of KP, Qari Ismail has been a well-known leader for the last ten years.

These commanders have killed civilians and law enforcement personnel in terrorist assaults in Punjab and Peshawar. Following the killing of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar leader Omar Khalid Khorasani in August 2022, tensions between the group and the TTP arose.

Notably, disputes have also emerged as a result of the TTP’s central committee, headed by Mohsin Wazir and backed by Muhassud Wali, removing two commanders connected to Jamaat-ul-Ahrar from ministerial positions. Tensions in the Khyber area have escalated to the brink of war as both terrorist organizations compete for dominance.

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Perhaps another significant increase in power prices

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The Central Power Purchasing Agency (CPPA) has appealed to NEPRA to raise the price of energy by Rs7.13 per unit starting next month.

The rise will cost customers who are already suffering from inflation an extra Rs66.77 billion if NEPRA approves the demand.

According to the CPPA’s appeal, electricity distribution firms received 7.93 billion units in January 2024.

On February 23, Nepra will consider the petition. Customers who are on Lifeline KE will not be able to use the updated pricing.

In light of the monthly fuel adjustment (MFA), it is relevant to note that on January 31, the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA) raised the power rate by Rs5.63 per unit.

Following the conclusion of the NEPRA hearing on the Central Power Purchasing Agency’s (CPPA) appeal for a fuel monthly adjustment that will increase the power rate by Rs5.63 per unit for December 2023, the verdict was made public.

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