Arab Spring haj pilgrims talk politics despite heavy security

By Amena Bakr

ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - The young Syrian ascending Mount Arafat brooded about his war-shattered country on Monday, his concerns a common preoccupation among Arabs in the sea of humanity making the annual Muslim haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Wary of regional tensions that could flare into protests at the haj, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef asked pilgrims last week to leave their disputes at home, and he assigned 95,000 members of the security forces to keep order.

"This was a very tough year for us," said Syrian Abdel-Jabbar al-Badr, speaking to an Egyptian oil trader, who in turn fretted about his family's safety back at a time of widespread unrest and militant violence. "I had to move my family to Saudi Arabia after all the murders in our village," Badr said.

Despite a ban on political debate during haj, pilgrims from Arab states shaken by popular uprisings found personal security a common theme as they climbed the rocky mountain where the Prophet Mohammad delivered his last sermon some 1,400 years ago.

The ascent by more than two million pilgrims in seamless white robes up the holy mountain chanting prayers for forgiveness, marks the spiritual climax of the haj.

There was an undercurrent of frustration: Disgruntled Arabs from Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya expressed exasperation with the instability brought about by the Arab Spring uprisings, and tried to console each other.

Badr said he was relieved to have been able been to bring his wife and children to Saudi Arabia, but that he remained worried about other family members still in Syria.

"We still don't have enough security of the streets to feel safe," said Mohamed Zaki, the Egyptian oil trader, referring to Egypt, where regular protests and periodic violence has plagued the country since the army overthrew elected President Mohamed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood government earlier this year.

"I don't feel comfortable knowing people get shot everyday."

In Syria, more than 100,000 people have been killed in fighting since 2011 between mainly Sunni Muslim rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

The haj, among the world's largest religious gatherings, has so far been proceeding without any problem, despite expansion works at the Grand Mosque in Mecca that forced Saudi authorities to cut the number of pilgrims attending this year.

HOVERING HELICOPTERS

A planned peaceful protest by young Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supporters at the start of the pilgrimage on what is known as Arafat Day failed to materialise and the ascent proceeded peacefully and without incident.

"Everything is going as planned and there have no political protests from any group, and as we said before, Saudi Arabia will not tolerate any of such actions," Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Al-Turki said.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia supports the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad as well as the interim, military-backed authorities who took power in Egypt after Mursi's removal.

On Monday, Saudi helicopters hovered in the air to monitor the stream of pilgrims while police officers formed cordons in crowded areas to channel the human tide, limiting the chances of a stampede.

Turki said the kingdom had imposed no restrictive measures on pilgrims coming from Arab Spring countries this year. "We are using the quota system which has been used for years for every country," he said.

So far around 1.6 million pilgrims have come from abroad to perform haj, a lower figure than last year as authorities in the kingdom have reduced the general quotas due to the building works at the Grand Mosque.

In between delivering prayers for loved ones, many of the Syrians performing haj seized every opportunity to urge Saudi Arabia and other countries to help the anti-Assad rebels.

"We are tired, we are dying everyday and we are sick of empty promises of support from Gulf countries," said Hassan Farouk, a student from the Syrian capital Damascus. We need Saudi Arabia and the others to give the (rebel) free army weapons that would make a difference in this war.

"So far everything they have done has been pointless."

Some Sunni Arab monarchs regard a defeat of Assad as integral to their confrontation with Shi'ite Iran, the Syrian leader's main regional patron and a country suspected of orchestrating opposition to several Gulf Arab rulers. Tehran denies that it works to undermine any Gulf Arab government.

"The Gulf has not done enough and I'm urging them now to step in more," said Nizar Mohamed, a Damascus merchant on the haj.

(Reporting by Amena Bakr; editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

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