Politics and prayers for the last days of Ramadan in Mecca

Mecca (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) –


Islam's holiest city Mecca is abuzz with pilgrims in the last days of the fasting month of Ramadan, despite tight security for high-profile gatherings of Muslim and Arab dignitaries.

At a palace overlooking the Grand Mosque, Saudi Arabia's King Salman hosted back-to-back emergency summits of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League in the early hours of Friday.

Some roads remained blocked as Mecca geared up to host a third meeting later in the day, a long-scheduled gathering of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

As the flags of participating countries fluttered in the streets, worshippers in white flocked towards the Grand Mosque that surrounds the Kaaba stone towards which Muslims pray.

Mecca sees an influx in the last 10 days of Ramadan, which believers consider the holiest month.

Pilgrims from all over the world spend those days praying in the Grand Mosque as well as other places of worship in the holy city, entry to which is forbidden for non-Muslims.

- 'Message of love' -

Emirati visitor Suheil al-Zubeidy sat dressed in white at a hotel in the centre in Mecca, as journalists hurried by to cover the summits which saw Saudi Arabia look to whip up support against rival Iran.

"Mecca was a message of love in the past, and today it is again sending a message to avoid war and for coexistence, but firmly," he told AFP.

Tens of millions of Muslims go to Mecca every year to perform pilgrimage or even just pray. The city is where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammed received revelations of the Muslim holy book, the Koran.

On Thursday night, dozens of men and women gathered near a mosque to break their day-long fast. They laid out a white blanket on the green grass and sat on the floor to share an iftar meal, as calls to prayer from loudspeakers filled the air.

An administrative worker at the mosque said many people spend the last 10 days praying.

"They want nothing but to pray," he told AFP. "Some pray for a lover, some pray for work, and some pray that God heal them.

"They spend all their days in the mosque and only come out to break their fast."

- 'Pray for anything' -

Khaled al-Ghamdi from the south of the kingdom has been living in Mecca for the past two months.

The increased number of worshippers coupled with the closure of roads due to the meetings has resulted in heavy congestion, he told AFP.

"But, there's no problem at all. Everything becomes easy, thank God," he said.

Saudi Ahmed al-Rajihi said the last 10 days of the holy month is when "you can pray for anything you want in your life".

"Every person has his own unique story here," he told AFP.

But not everyone's story is pretty.

Pakistani Ahmed Nuaim's trip to Mecca turned into one of tragedy after his wife was killed and his mother seriously injured in a car accident in the holy city.

Nuaim, who resides in the Saudi city of Khobar, was in Mecca with his family to perform Umrah -- a lesser pilgrimage than Islam's main one, the Hajj.

"This has been our custom the past few years. We prefer to perform Umrah in Ramadan because it is said we get more benefits," the father of four told AFP.

"We buried my wife near the Grand Mosque," he said, holding back tears.

"For my children, this is another incentive to come back here... to visit their mother's grave and pray for her."