U.S. Muslims seek pilgrimage protection

08/29/2014 7:00 AM

08/29/2014 12:00 PM

Concerned for the safety of U.S. citizens soon headed to Mecca, 27 Muslim-American groups are asking the State Department to better protect them from violence that has plagued those who have made the pilgrimage in the past.

The request was prompted in part by a 2013 incident in which Sunni Muslims from Australia threatened to kill and rape a group of Shiites from Michigan.

The pilgrimage to Islam’s most sacred place is required of all Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey to Mecca. The hajj takes place during the 12th month of the Islamic year and typically attracts 2 million or more faithful annually. This year it falls during the first week of October.

U.S. Muslims on the hajj “need to know that the State Department has their backs,” said Mohamed Sabur of the Oakland, Calif.-based Muslim Advocates.

A State Department representative said in an email that the U.S. is committed to the protection of its citizens traveling or living abroad.

For most, the hajj is safe. But the huge gathering holds inherent risks, despite high-tech Saudi crowd control and anti-terrorism efforts, which include thousands of closed-circuit television cameras. The main danger in past years has been from stampedes: Between 1990 and 2004, more than 2,000 people were trampled to death on the hajj.

After last year’s attack, the Americans reported that Saudi authorities at first seemed ready to help, but then destroyed a video of the incident and otherwise made it clear that they would not follow up.

The Americans identified their attackers as Salafis — Sunnis who embrace a strict form of Islam that is widely practiced in Saudi Arabia.

The response from the U.S. Embassy was slow and disappointing, said Sabur. “When they relied on the U.S. State Department, they didn’t come through, either.”

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