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Chinese pilgrims to haj hit record
By Sun Shangwu (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-01-19 06:27

A record 7,000 Chinese Muslim pilgrims from all over the country attended the haj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia last week, a sign of the improvement in people's livelihoods, a senior Chinese religious official said yesterday in Beijing.

During the 1950s-1980s, the Chinese Muslim Association every year organized only a dozen Muslims to take part in the haj, according to Guo Chengzhen, deputy director of the department in charge of Muslim affairs with the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

The number of organized Chinese pilgrims passed 260 in 1985, then skyrocketed from 850 in 1990 to 2,000 in 1995.

Muslims attending the haj mainly come from eight provinces and autonomous regions, namely Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Shaanxi in the Northwest, North China's Inner Mongolia, Central China's Henan and Southwest's Yunnan, said Guo in an interview with China Daily.

The majority of Chinese Muslims reside in these regions, which are economically less developed than the coastal areas. A Muslim usually spends an average of 30,000 yuan (US$3,600) to complete a religious mission to Mecca, which includes travelling and accommodations costs, according to Guo.

China's growth and development in recent years has made it affordable for people in these regions to attend the haj in Mecca, said Guo.

The haj is the pilgrimage to Mecca and is the fifth of the "Five Pillars of Islam" in Sunni Islam.

According to Islamic rules, every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so is obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

About 2.5 million pilgrims from all over the world attended this year's haj, which ended last Thursday.

A stampede last week claimed 362 lives, including five Chinese pilgrims.

Besides the four previously reported Chinese Muslims from Qinghai Province who were killed in the stampede, one more pilgrim from Xinjiang was also found dead in the accident, according to Guo.

The four Qinghai victims were members of the organized Chinese pilgrim group, while the Xinjiang pilgrim visited the place by himself.

According to Chinese religious regulations, the Chinese Muslim Association is responsible for organizing Chinese Muslims to take part in the haj.

"The organized pilgrim group enjoys better transportation and accommodation facilities," said Guo, noting that the group also set up an emergency-handling mechanism to guarantee their safety.

Starting from 1989, the Chinese Muslim Association used chartered planes to transport Chinese Muslim from China to Saudi Arabia, which saved both time and money for pilgrims.

The Chinese Muslim Association also employs some staff members who are familiar with Arabic and Islamic customs to offer help to group members. Some emergency-handling measures have been taken to help group members deal with emergencies such as the stampede, traffic accidents and terrorist activities.

Independent visits are believed to be inconvenient to both pilgrims and the Saudi Arabia Government, Guo said. "We want to provide better service to pilgrims so as to attract more people to join the organized group instead of doing it by themselves."

(China Daily 01/19/2006 page2)

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