SHAFAQNA -Â Australian Muslims have been cautioned to reconsider making this monthâ€™s annual mass pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, amid an elevated fear of terrorism in Saudi Arabia.
With about three million pilgrims set to undertake the Hajj, the federal government has also warned Australians to familiarise themselves with the countryâ€™s strict blasphemy laws which can attract long jail terms and floggings.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warned of a â€œsharp increaseâ€ in terrorism in Saudi Arabia, including against foreigners, with tactics such as bombings, drive-by shootings and kidnappings.
Three mosques in Saudi Arabia have been bombed by terrorists since May, and Australians are advised not to travel within 30km of the countryâ€™s border with Yemen, beyond which forces led by Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia are fighting Iranian-backed Shiâ€™ite militants.
â€œThe Ministry of Hajj has advised that it is prohibited to hold gatherings and group prayers, or to raise voices or to perform rituals of worship not practised in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,â€ the departmentâ€™sÂ Smartraveller website warned.
â€œThe Ministry of Hajj has also advised that producing or distributing any printed or electronic material by Hajj pilgrims or tour organisers is prohibited, unless it is authorised and approved by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information.
â€œStrict laws apply to blasphemy and pilgrims should avoid making statements or utterances that could be interpreted as blasphemy. In the past, people suspected of violating these restrictions have been sentenced to long jail terms and floggings.â€
The Hajj will fall between 20 and 25 September this year.
DFAT urged pilgrims to expect overcrowding at religious sites, noting the deaths of more than 400 pilgrims during a stampede at the Hajj in 2006.
â€œYou should safeguard your valuables from theft and obey all bans on photography and filming. You are not allowed to take photographs â€” still or video â€” at the Holy Mosque at Mecca or at the Prophetâ€™s Mosque at Medina.
â€œIt is recommended you use only authorised locations for changing currency.â€
It is a duty of every Muslim to make the Hajj at least once in their lifetime. On arriving at the Sacred Mosque, each pilgrim must walk seven times around the Kaaba, a stone building Muslims believe was originally built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael.
They then make the trek from Mecca to Mina, several kilometres away, where they spend the night in the tent city before ascending nearby Mount Arafat, where they pray for forgiveness.