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October 31, 2009

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Pilgrimage to Mecca begins for Muslims

THE flight with 332 passengers took off at 3:30pm yesterday from Lanzhou, capital of northwest China's Gansu Province, marking the start of Chinese Muslims' pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia this year.

Until November 18, about 12,700 Muslims will go to the holy city in 41 chartered flights from northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions, Gansu, southwest China's Yunnan Province and Beijing.

The number of pilgrims is 700 more than last year.

Male Muslims wore gray robes and white hats, while the women were in traditional scarves and blue vests. Each of them had a symbol of China's national flag embroidered on their clothes.

As average age of the Muslims was 60 and they lacked experience in traveling abroad, training programs had been offered before their departure, said Xiao Yuchuan, head of the Gansu religion bureau.

Gao Zhanfu, vice president of the China Islamic Institute, said the Muslims were lucky. "This year, more than 12,000 people have the chance to visit Mecca, while 10 years ago, the number was just 3,000," he said.

In Gansu alone this year, a total of 2,482 Muslims together with nine doctors and 58 other staff members would leave for Mecca, he said.

To Ma Weifeng, a 66-year-old woman from the Hui ethnic minority, the hajj is the most important religious task of her life, which she has waited for decades to fulfill.

"After I retired in 1997, I've been performing religious rituals five times a day and going to a mosque to learn the Koran," Ma said in Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia.

However, only a visit to Mecca could make her religious life "consummate."

"My application for hajj was approved in 2007, but I got sick then and the pilgrimage was delayed till this year," she said.

Ma will be among the 2,250 people to leave for Mecca at 5pm today from Ningxia, where more than a third of the region's population, or 2.1 million, are from the Hui ethnic minority.

She began preparing for the trip a month ago. "I heard food in Saudi Arabia is different from ours," she said.

"So I prepared more than 20 kilograms of food - not just rice, but also pickles and vinegar."

She also received a free shot of H1N1 flu vaccine, as all the others did.


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