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Millions start Hajj in shadow of Israel’s war on Gaza



Muslim worshippers walk around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage [Aljazeera]

More than 1.5 million Muslim pilgrims have gathered in Saudi Arabia’s Mecca for the start of Hajj, taking place this year against the harrowing backdrop of Israel’s continued onslaught on the Gaza Strip.

The annual pilgrimage began on Friday with crowds of robed worshippers circling the Kaaba, the black cubic structure at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, many expressing sadness eight months into Israel’s war on Gaza.

“Our brothers are dying, and we can see it with our own eyes,” said 75-year-old Zahra Benizahra from Morocco.

Palestinians in Gaza were not able to travel to Mecca this year because of the closure of the Rafah crossing in May when Israel extended its ground offensive into the strip’s southern city of Rafah on the border with Egypt.

“We were deprived of Hajj because of the closure of the crossing and because of the war and destruction,” Amna Abu Mutlaq, 75, told Al Jazeera. “We are unable to leave and every time we try to leave, they tell us that the crossing is closed and we cannot leave. They deprived us of everything.”

Palestinian authorities said 4,200 people from the occupied West Bank had arrived in Mecca for the pilgrimage. One thousand more pilgrims, from the families of Palestinians killed or wounded in the war, who were already outside Gaza before Rafah was closed, were invited by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

However, the Gulf kingdom’s minister in charge of religious pilgrimages, Tawfiq al-Rabiah, warned last week that “no political activity” would be tolerated during the event.

This year’s Hajj has also brought Syrian pilgrims to Mecca on direct flights from Damascus for the first time in more than a decade, part of an ongoing thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and conflict stricken Syria Syria.

Syrians in rebel-held areas used to cross the border into neighbouring Turkey in their exhausting trip to Mecca for Hajj.

Saudi authorities expect the number of pilgrims attending Hajj to exceed two million this year.

One of the world’s largest religious gatherings, it involves a series of rituals in Mecca and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia that take several days to complete.

Reporting from in front of the Great Mosque of Mecca, Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra said: “We’re expecting pilgrims to perform the Friday prayers, to go to the plains of Mina to spend the night, and then tomorrow is going to be the very highlight of the Hajj with the day that they will spend in prayers, contemplation and incantations at the valley of Arafat.

“This is an extremely complex operation.  The Saudis are deploying massive personnel throughout this journey to ensure smooth traffic and safety for all the pilgrims,” he said.

One of the five pillars of Islam, Hajj must be performed at least once by all Muslims who have the means to do so.

Some have waited for years for the chance to make the trip, with permits allocated by Saudi authorities on a quota basis for each country.

Nonaartina Hajipaoli, 50, told the AFP news agency she felt privileged to be among the 1,000 pilgrims who came this year from Brunei in Southeast Asia. “I’m speechless, I can’t describe what I feel,” she said.

The pilgrims will first perform the tawaf – circling seven times around the Kaaba.  They will then head towards Mina, a valley surrounded by craggy mountains several kilometres outside Mecca, where they will spend the night in air-conditioned tents. The climax will come on Saturday with daylong prayers on Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon.

The pilgrimage is a moving spiritual experience for pilgrims who believe it absolves sins and brings them closer to God, while uniting the world’s more than two billion Muslims.

It is also a chance to pray for peace in many conflict-stricken Arab and Muslim countries, including Yemen and Sudan, where more than a year of war between rival generals has created the world’s largest displacement crisis.

As has been the case for several years, the gathering is taking place during the sweltering Saudi summer, with officials predicting average highs of 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit).

Mohammed al-Abdulali, spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Health, told the AFP news agency this week there were more than 10,000 documented cases of heat-related illnesses last year, 10 percent of which were heat stroke.

Mitigation measures this year include misting systems and heat-reflective road coverings.

“The authorities have been asking pilgrims to take precautionary measures amid high temperatures expected throughout the Hajj,” said Al Jazeera’s Ahelbarra.

A text message sent to pilgrims on Thursday instructed them to “drink water regularly, more than 2 litres daily” and to “always carry an umbrella”, warning that temperatures could climb to 48C (118F).


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Djokovic sets up Alcaraz rematch in Wimbledon final




Novak Djokovic is trying to match Roger Federer's total of eight Wimbledon titles [BBC]

Novak Djokovic outclassed Italian underdog Lorenzo Musetti to reach the Wimbledon final and set up a showdown with reigning champion Carlos Alcaraz in a repeat of last year’s final.

The 37-year-old impressed as he stayed on course for a record-equalling eighth men’s singles title at Wimbledon with a 6-4 7-6 (7-2) 6-4 victory on Centre Court.

Musetti, 22, had one chance to get the break back in the final set but sent a forehand into the net and crouched down with his head in his hands, knowing the end was near.  Djokovic made sure his opponent did not get another opportunity.

Under pressure, Musetti sent a shot long before Djokovic walked to the net, knowing he had reached his 37th Grand Slam final and 10th at Wimbledon.

The Serb then moved his racquet over his shoulder and imitated playing a violin, in a gesture aimed at his six-year-old daughter Tara, with television cameras showing her grinning along.

Some fans, however, started booing, thinking Djokovic, who produced the same celebration following his win over Holger Rune in the last 16, was being disrespectful.

Alcaraz beat Djokovic in last year’s showpiece, winning 1-6 7-6 (8-6) 6-1 3-6 6-4 in a five-set epic, which lasted four hours 42 minutes and is regarded one of the best matches in the tournament’s history.

The pair meet again on Sunday in what could be another amazing chapter in Wimbledon folklore.

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Top ICC official Chris Tetley and Claire Furlong resign




There was a lot of scrutiny of the matches in the US leg of the World Cup, particularly the games held in New York

A couple of senior officials from the International Cricket Council (ICC), who were closely involved in organizing the Twenty20 World Cup in the US and the West Indies, have resigned. On Friday, it came to light that Chris Tetley, the ICC’s Head of Events, and Claire Furlong, the General Manager of Marketing and Communications, have announced their departures from the organization.

The resignations, coming as they did immediately after the conclusion of the World Cup and just about a week ahead of the ICC’s annual conference in Colombo, are believed to be related to the conduct of the championship. However, ICC insiders say the resignations are several months old.

One particular source has claimed that both Tetley and Furlong decided to leave the world body at the end of the last commercial cycle itself but stayed on in view of the Twenty20 World Cup in the US. The source went on to add that the two quit quite some time back but will continue to be with the ICC for a few more months ‘to ensure smooth transition of charge in a crowded event cycle.’ They will also attend the Annual Conference in Colombo from July 19 to 22.

The World Cup in the US, and particularly in New York, was a major project of the ICC and the two officials were closely involved in it. Many members of the ICC were priming to raise the issue of the New York games, which were low-scoring affairs due to the ‘up and down’ nature of the drop-in pitches at the NY stadium, at the Colombo conclave. A key member of the ICC board is learnt to have raised the issue through a letter to the members.

The number of fours and sixes, which are generally expected to be high in numbers in the Twenty20 games, was significantly low in the New York games. The Indian team, the eventual champions, however, did not comment on the nature of the pitches, stating that the conditions were equal for all the participating teams.

The matches in the US were conducted by an entity called T20 World Cup Inc which had built a modular stadium in the Nassau County of New York’s Long Island in record time. The stadium was dismantled immediately after the NY leg of the championship. NY hosted eight of the 16 games allotted to the US.

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US space agency NASA releases Webb telescope photos of entwined galaxies




In this photo provided by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute, two interacting galaxies are captured by the Webb Space Telescope in the infrared. Scientists say the neighnouring galaxies, nicknamed Penguin, right, and the Egg, left, have been tangled up for tens of millions of years

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has released photos from the James Webb Space Telescope showing a pair of entangled galaxies.

The space agency released a photo of the two galaxies — one named Penguin and the other Egg — on Friday, marking the two-year anniversary of Webb’s activities capturing images of space.

“In just two years, Webb has transformed our view of the universe, enabling the kind of world-class science that drove NASA to make this mission a reality,” said Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA, said in a news release.

“Webb is providing insights into longstanding mysteries about the early universe and ushering in a new era of studying distant worlds, while returning images that inspire people around the world and posing exciting new questions to answer. It has never been more possible to explore every facet of the universe.”

NASA says that the two galaxies — about 326 million light-years away — have been wrapped up with each other for tens of millions of years. One light year, a reference to distance rather than time, is about 5.8 trillion miles.

The Webb Telescope, which specialises in capturing infrared light, is considered the successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope and has helped bring about a series of discoveries and ae-inspiring images from space over the last two years.

The cosmic dance between the two galaxies was set in motion between 25 and 75 million years ago, according to a news release from NASA.

“They will go on to shimmy and sway, completing several additional loops before merging into a single galaxy hundreds of millions of years from now,” it reads.


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