Nearly Two Million Muslims Begin Hajj Pilgrimage

Nearly two million Muslim faithful set off Monday from Mecca to the valley of Mina as the annual hajj pilgrimage got under way in Saudi Arabia amid tight security.

Muslim pilgrims flock to the Grand Mosque for evening prayers in the holy city of Mecca, December 12 (Photo: AFP)

The pilgrims, wearing white robes, walked or boarded buses to Mina, five kilometers (three miles) east of the holy city of Mecca, to begin tracing the journey made by the Prophet Mohammed more than 1,400 years ago.

Pilgrims will spend the day in prayers and meditation in Mina, sleeping at night in tents before heading further south to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet is believed to have received the last passage of Islam's holy book, the Koran.

The hajj climaxes on Tuesday, when the faithful will spend the day praying and asking God's forgiveness at the summit.

Among this year's pilgrims is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first president of the Islamic republic to take part in the event.

"If I made a mistake or in one of my speeches or said something that was not in line with the interest of the nation and has hurt the nation or I was not able to defend its rights, then I ask people to forgive me," Ahmadinejad said late Sunday before his departure, Iranian state media reported.

He will join other pilgrims in carrying out a series of sacred rituals, which includes walking counter-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure in Mecca toward which Muslims pray.

Ahmadinejad's presence is seen as helping to ease the sometimes rocky relations between largely-Shiite Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.

Security has been stepped in a bid to control the immense crowds, as Saudi authorities hope to prevent the high death tolls that have often characterized past pilgrimages.

In 2006, 364 people were killed in a stampede at the entrance of the Jamarat Bridge, where pilgrims traditionally cast stones at a pillar representing Satan.

A third level has been added to the bridge for this year's pilgrimage, designed to ease the flow of pilgrims. Saudi officials say the crossing can now handle more than two hundred thousand people an hour.

The pilgrimage, which ends on Friday, is one of the five pillars of Islam and is an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims at least once during their lives if they can afford it.

Source: AFP

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