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For illegal pilgrims in Mecca, God's blessings transcend secular law

MINA, SAUDI ARABIA (Reuters) - Fear of getting caught is not enough to deter Abu Ahmed and up to 200,000 other illegal pilgrims from attending this year’s haj in Mecca, despite a clampdown by the Saudi authorities aimed at preventing deadly overcrowding.

Muslim pilgrims walk on roads as they head to cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mina on the second day of Eid al-Adha, near the holy city of Mecca September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

The haj, which every able-bodied Muslim is required to perform, is believed to forgive the sins of a lifetime and leads the most zealous to seek to perform the rite repeatedly.

Saudi regulations limit visits to once every five years for the most likely group of repeat pilgrims, those coming from inside the kingdom and especially its population of 8 million mostly South Asian resident workers.

The tougher approach has pushed down illegal numbers from half a million in previous years to between 100,000 and 200,000 this year, Mecca’s mayor Osama bin Fadl Al-Bar said, but he warned that experienced smugglers continue to ferry the faithful around checkpoints unnoticed.

Text messages and advertisements ahead of this year’s event warned of the tightened punishments for violators: deportation from the kingdom for ten years, jail for up to six months and fines of 50,000 Saudi riyals ($13,300).

“We’ll all be buried one day. I’m fifty now, how long do I still have? People want to wipe clean their sins and atone for their wrongdoing before they die,” said Abu Ahmed, a Jordanian businessman who has a work residency in the kingdom but not the special permit needed to attend haj.

“Coming here is expensive and emotionally taxing, but I feel it’s my duty to come here every year because life is short,” said Abu Ahmed, who withheld his real name for fear of arrest.

But more people means more risk of congestion in the eyes of Saudi officialdom, which stakes its legitimacy on hosting the event and is keen to avoid incidents like a deadly crush last year which killed at least 2,070 people.

Al-Bar said rocky terrain in the Mina area that witnessed last year’s disaster meant that space for paths and tents was limited.

“(Illegal pilgrims) sleep on roads and bridges ... they impede movement, services, traffic and hygiene. Their practices like street vending and cooking anywhere are all obstacles which must be removed,” Bar said.

But Abu Ahmed said the covert ride for him and his three fellow Jordanian illegals was a bargain at 500 riyals ($133) each, though he admits the fear of getting caught weighs on his spiritual experience.

“Throughout this whole journey we’re going through such intense stress and fear ... But our faith in God is great.”

Editing by Noah Browning and Raissa Kasolowsky