MECCA â€” Divided in their troubled homeland, Iraqi pilgrims who made the perilous journey to Mecca for Hajj this week are united in their prayers for peace, stability and the loved ones they have lost.
“What other motivation would I have than to pray for the unity of our country. Only unity can bring back security and safety,” said Zohra Um Mohammad.
“We pray for the Americans to leave. They are the ones who have torn us apart,” added the 54-year old accountant, who braved dangerous roads on a five-day journey from Iraq’s ancient city of Babel to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca.
At least two million Muslims, from dozens of sects and around 160 countries, begin on Friday an exhausting five-day ritual that all able-bodied Muslims are required to make at least once in a lifetime.
But this Hajj takes place amid escalating violence between Sunnis and Shiites, members of Islam’s two main branches, that has taken Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Violence is at an all-time high in Iraq and sectarian fighting is killing around 100 Iraqis every day.
Sunni-Shiite tension is also high in Lebanon and fears that sectarian splits will spill over at the Hajjj have added to existing worries of Al Qaeda-linked violence.
Asked if he was worried about meeting fellow Iraqis of other sects, Kadhim Manwar Al Adhari, a 52-year old public servant said: “I’m from Amara, where both Shiites and Sunnis live. Sunnis are married to Shiites and vice versa.”
Muslims start flocking to Mecca for Hajj at the end of the Ramadan, which sees the start of a three-month period during which Islam prohibits any sort of bloodshed. Even killing a fly inside Mecca can annul Hajj.
For many Iraqi pilgrims, Hajj was a time to reflect and to pray for their country.
“What a pity. We need to pray for Iraq, you must pray with us for our homeland,” said Ruqaya, her eyes welling up with tears as the 45-year-old Iraqi woman recalled the state in which she had left Baghdad for the pilgrimage.
On their way to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Ruqaya and her husband Jabbar Abu Tariq said they would be praying for dozens of relatives, neighbours and friends killed in violence that has torn the Iraqi capital apart since US-led invasion in 2003.