Muslims from around the world are on their way to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the spiritual pilgrimage known as the Hajj beginning December 18. This annual event takes place during the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is a journey every Muslim who is able is obligated to make. VOA's Laila Azimi recently visited a couple from the United States preparing to make their first pilgrimage to Mecca. Jim Bertel narrates.

More than two million people are expected to converge on the Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia during this year's Hajj, including more than 12,000 Americans, a number that is growing steadily each year. It is the obligation of every Muslim who is able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

This will be the first Hajj for Fouzia Aziz. "I wanted to go on the pilgrimage a long time ago, but my children were small and they were in school," she said. "My husband and I had responsibilities. Now that all of them are graduated and some of them are married, we have a chance to perform the fifth pillar of our religion."

Former Afghan Army Lieutenant Aziz Aziz says he is happy to live in a country like the U.S. that permits freedom of religion. "We Muslims like all others could have our own mosque and we can pray any time anywhere, there are no restrictions," he noted.

"We can go day or night to the mosque; we perform all our religious activities in the United States. Also we didn't have any problem when we decided to go for Hajj," he added.

Because the journey can be difficult and costly, Fouzia Aziz says they turned to a travel agency that offers Hajj package deals that include air travel and lodging. It also arranges for religious instruction on site in how to perform the rites of Hajj.

Walid Abusharkh is leading a group of 50 pilgrims from Virginia to Mecca. "We are an international Muslim Hajji group," said Abusharkh. "We have people from Afghanistan, America, we have Tunis, from Yemen, from Egypt, from Sudan, from Morocco, and from Palestine."

The grueling six days of religious ceremonies include rituals, prayers, and communion with fellow Muslims.