Chinese muslims begin pilgrimage to Mecca

08:43, October 19, 2010      

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About 13,000 Chinese Muslims began leaving China on chartered flights Monday for the annual pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The first plane, with 332 pilgrims aboard, took off from Zhongchuan Airport in Lanzhou, capital of Northwest China's Gansu province, at 12:15 am and arrived in Medina at 9 am local time.

Pilgrims were also boarding flights at airports in Beijing, Urumqi, Yinchuan and Kunming from Monday, said Yang Shuli, assistant president of China Islamic Institute.

To better prepare the worshippers for the month-long pilgrimage, the Chinese government organized health checks and orientation programs for them.

"Many of them are from remote rural areas and lack travel experience. Also, for many, their skill in Arabic is limited to chanting the Koran. They mostly cannot communicate," said Ma Youcheng, deputy head of the Gansu Islamic Association.

"I'm glad they told me what to pack and what the dos and don'ts are in foreign countries," said 61-year-old He Jingxiang, an ethnic Hui who was leaving his home province for the first time.

Imams, doctors and government officials are accompanying each group.

Ma Fenglin, who saw his 69-year-old mother off at Zhongchuan Airport, said the direct flight from Lanzhou to the Holy City would save him at least 5,000 yuan ($753).

"In the past, pilgrims had to travel to Beijing to take the flight, which was costly and tiresome for older Muslims like my mother," said Ma.

"Now the average cost for a pilgrim is down to 40,000 yuan ($6,000)," he said.

From Gansu alone, 2,460 muslims will go on the pilgrimage, eight times the figure of 1999. Ma Jianping, head of the pilgrimage office of the provincial administration for religious affairs, attributed the increase to the higher incomes of farmers.

"In the past, pilgrims had to save for years for one trip. Now, the minimum fee of 30,000 yuan ($4,500) is affordable to many," said Ma.

According to Islamic custom, pilgrims should not go into debt for the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and must save money for their families during the pilgrimage.

Tian Shifu, a 53-year-old potato farmer from Dingxi city, said he only recently began to consider the possibility of going on the pilgrimage.

"Dingxi was once a land of starvation and poverty, and pilgrimage to Mecca was something we couldn't even think about," said Tian.

Tian's potato field and grocery store earn him more than 30,000 yuan a year, which has enabled Tian and his wife to go on the hajj this year.

The average age of this year's pilgrims was 60, said Ma Jianping. Many had waited years to realize the dream.

China has around 23 million Muslims in more than 20 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities, according to official statistics.

In 1997, the first chartered plane for Chinese pilgrims flew from Beijing to Jeddah, an important gateway to Mecca. Direct chartered flights later linked Beijing, Lanzhou, Urumqi, Yinchuan, and Kunming to Medina, the second holiest city, which is north of Mecca.

Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed, is a shrine for Muslims across the globe. A pilgrimage to Mecca is a religious duty that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so.

Source: Xinhua

(Editor:王寒露)

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