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Saudi Arabia Prepares for Annual Hajj

The annual Islamic pilgrimage known as the Hajj officially gets under way Saturday in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials are working to avoid any repeat of the tragedies that have befallen the Hajj in years past.

During the Hajj the muezzin calls worshippers to prayer, while pilgrims chant and pray as they circle the black, holy stone in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The pilgrimage is one of Islam's five obligations, that every able-bodied Muslim must perform during his lifetime.

Every Islamic country across the world has a quota, stipulating how many pilgrims it may send to the Hajj, and the total number this year, is reported to be around 2.5 million people, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

Squads of Saudi rapid intervention forces, some dressed entirely in black, chanted at a training ground, outside of Mecca, near Mount Arafat, as they prepared for possible disturbances or natural disasters.

Saudi government TV reports 50,000 soldiers and police, backed by helicopters and armored vehicles, are being deployed. Scores of ambulances, firetrucks, and police trucks were also visible, amid the security detail.

Interior Minister Nayef ben Abdal Aziz, who heads the committee overseeing the annual Hajj, inspected preparations and reviewed police and army forces.

He told journalists the Saudi Kingdom has done its best to assure the comfort and security of pilgrims at the annual Hajj.

He says everything has been done to keep pilgrims safe and insure their comfort. He adds that he has received no information about any possible security threat, but that his forces, along with God Almighty, will work to see that nothing happens to disturb the tranquility of the Hajj.

Near the site where Hajjis symbolically stone the devil, Saudi Arabia has spent more than one billion dollars to rebuild a lengthy two-level pedestrian bridge in a bid to avoid casualties, following several deadly stampedes in recent years.

Groups of teenage scouts wearing red shirts also prepared for their role in guiding pilgrims near Mount Arafat.

The symbolic climb of Mount Arafat is the climax of the annual Haj as 32-year-old Lebanese Muslim Mustapha Ghalayini, who performed the pilgrimage several years ago, explains.

"The best day in Hajj is Arafat day, which is the day when all the people will be on Arafat Mountain," Ghalayini said. "This is the main reason of Haj, which unites all Muslims from all around the world, from East, West, South and North, all around, coming to this place on that day, staying that day on that holy place, wearing only two towels, white towels, and showing others around the world that this is what God wants ... us to be one person, one for all and all for one. It is the meaning of no one is above any one, we are all equal, we should all help each other, we should all be good to each other. There is no difference between the managers and the staff. There is no difference between the man and the woman; all are one. All should obey God and do good things."

Mount Arafat is where Mohammed delivered his last sermon to his followers.

"This mountain, from ancient times, in the Bible, in the Koran, it mentions that lots of things happened on it, such as one time about Prophet Abraham and his son Ismail, when he wanted to sacrifice his son for God, and God sacrificed his son with a big sheep," Ghalayini said.

Muzdalifa, where Muslim pilgrims perform the ritual stoning of the devil by casting pebbles at three stone pillars, is the scene of intense fervor, as pilgrims symbolically cast off the devil and his evil temptations, as this elderly Pakistani man explains.

"When stoning it, we are saying that 'Oh, God, Almighty Allah, we want your willingness, and we are hitting this devil, who has been forcing us to deviate from the path of Allah ...," he said.

In the final steps of the Hajj, pilgrims will have their heads shaved, before the final ritual slaughter of a lamb. Many Hajjis will not actually perform the slaughter, themselves, but will buy a coupon for a slaughtered lamb, and the meat will be donated to charity.