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Millions of Muslims on Annual Hajj Pilgrimage

Thousands of tents housing Muslim pilgrims are crowded together in Mina near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 14 Nov 2010. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws 2.5 million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world.

An estimated two-and-a-half million Muslims have gathered in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca and the nearby encampment of Mina for the annual pilgrimage, the Hajj.

On Monday the pilgrims visit Mount Arafat, several kilometers to the east, for a day of prayer and reflection. The site is where the Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon 14 centuries ago.

Then it is on to Muzdalifah before the pilgrims return to Mina on Tuesday for the “stoning of the devil,” casting stones at pillars in symbolic renunciation of the devil.

The pilgrims travel by foot, public transportation and private cars. This year sees the first phase of a train project intended to ease congestion on the Saudi roadways.

The Chinese-built elevated light-rail that begins limited operations on Monday will carry pilgrims between Mina and Mount Arafat through Muzdalifah. This year it will operate at about a third of its expected capacity.

As in years past, security remains a concern. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef has said the government is not ruling out an al-Qaida attack. But on Sunday, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula denied any intention of targeting this year’s Hajj.

The Hajj is one of Islam’s five obligations, one which every Muslim must fulfill, if possible, during his or her lifetime. Many Muslims believe that their journey to Mecca absolves them of their sins.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.