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Muslims gather in Saudi for Hajj

Nearly three million Muslims have gathered for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

The white-robed pilgrims began their ascent at the crack of dawn on Monday, covering the Mountain of Mercy at Arafat in an endless sea of white as their chants "Labyek Allah," or "Here I am, God, answering your calling," reverberated overhead.

The climb at Arafat is one of the cornerstones of the pilgrimage, which is required from every able-bodied Muslim at least once in their life time. It is the site where Prophet Mohammed delivered his farewell sermon and Muslims believe on this day the doors of heaven open to answer prayers and grant forgiveness.

As they began their climb from the tent-city in the valley, many of the pilgrims looked tired from lack of sleep, having spent the entire night praying.

Charities and vendors along the way handed out food packages and umbrellas to shield the climbers from the harsh sun.

One of the pilgrims, Wassim Ahmad, from Mumbai, India, said this was his first Hajj and that he felt like a child, reborn.

"Today is like judgment day," said the 29-year-old. "We have come to pray to God ... a new child has been born."

Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa are the three stops on the pilgrims' journey during the Hajj, as worshippers trace the steps of Prophet Mohammed.

The Hajj draws millions of worshippers each year, the sheer numbers a challenge in preventing stampedes at holy sites, fires in pilgrim encampments and the spread of disease.

This year Saudi authorities have taken new measures to improve crowd management, including launching a new light-rail system to transport pilgrims between the shrines.

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From Belfast Telegraph