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More than two million Muslims in Mecca for start of hajj pilgrimage

The annual event takes place amid a backdrop of political and sectarian tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Muslim pilgrims travel around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque (AP)
Muslim pilgrims travel around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque (AP)

By Bassam Hatoum and Aya Batrawy, Associated Press

More than two million pilgrims have gathered in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to perform initial rites of the hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage that takes the faithful along a path traversed by the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago.

The hajj in Islam is meant to be a great equaliser and unifier among Muslims, with pilgrims shedding overt displays of wealth and materialism.

Male pilgrims wear simple terry cloth white garments and women don conservative dress and headscarves, forgoing make-up, nail polish and perfume, in an effort to draw closer to God and engage in intense worship for the five-day hajj.

On Friday, thousands of pilgrims circled the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

They circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise, their hearts tilting towards the structure which symbolises the monotheistic principle of the oneness of God in Islam. Muslims around the world pray towards the Kaaba daily.

The hajj is one of the largest and most diverse gatherings in the world, drawing more than 1.8 million people from around the world this year, according to Saudi officials. Several hundred thousand more pilgrims are Saudi residents or citizens.

Last year, 2.4 million people took part in the hajj, with similar numbers expected this year.

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Pilgrims circle the Kaaba (Amr Nabil/AP)

The pilgrimage this year takes place amid a backdrop of political and sectarian tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and as conflicts continue to flare in Yemen, Syria and Libya.

Muslim minorities around the world also face increased threats, with Uighurs facing repression in China, Rohingya facing genocide in Burma and Kashmiris under a sweeping curfew and communication blackout in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Saudi King Salman invited as his guests this year 200 survivors and relatives of victims of a shooting spree in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a gunman opened fire and killed 51 people in two mosques.

Those on the hajj view the pilgrimage as an opportunity to strengthen the faith, erase past sins and start anew. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, required of all Muslims to perform once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able.

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Pilgrims walk past the Haramain High-Speed Railway (Amr Nabil/AP)

To ease the journey, the kingdom recently unveiled the first phase of a new high-speed train connecting pilgrims between holy sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina. The kingdom also has a new e-visa system for pilgrims.

To curb the potential for a viral outbreak of any kind, Saudi Arabia this year stopped issuing visas to people from Congo, citing the Ebola outbreak.

PA

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