Muslim pilgrims head to Mecca for the hajj

Muslim pilgrims are descending in droves on Mecca for the hajj, the world's largest annual gathering, which Saudi Arabia insists will not be affected by instability rocking the region.

Led by guides with their countries' flags printed on their garments, the faithful poured into Mecca to perform the minor pilgrimage, or umrah, ahead of the major hajj rituals.

Officials say the main events, which begin on Wednesday local time, are expected to attract more than two million devotees from across the world.

Thursday is the most important day, when pilgrims assemble in the Arafat plain outside Mecca. The pilgrimage ends after Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, on Friday.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam that every capable Muslim must perform at least once.

"It's my first time in Mecca for pilgrimage. I can't wait to pray in Arafat," said 32-year-old Koara Abdulrahman, a businessman from Burkina Faso.

Inside the Grand Mosque, scores of pilgrims circumambulate the cube-shaped Kaaba - in which direction Muslims worldwide pray - with many pushing their way through the crowds to kiss the walls of the structure that was first built by Abraham, according to the Islamic faith.

Others pray or recite verses from the holy Koran.

"Right now, I've got all the good feelings you can think of," said an Iranian pilgrim, her voice quivering and tears welling.

Authorities said more than 1.6 million foreign pilgrims have already arrived and the numbers are set to grow by Wednesday. Some 750,000 domestic pilgrims are also expected for the rituals.

Despite several checkpoints on roads to Mecca to prevent illegal pilgrims, huge numbers of unauthorised devotees also join the hajj every year.

A large number of pilgrims are from Asia, mostly from Indonesia which has the highest hajj quota, being the world's most populous Muslim nation.

It was unclear how many people from Syria, rocked by a civil war that began with a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime 19 months ago, will make the journey.

Damascus said in September that Saudi authorities have barred Syrians from this year's hajj after the two sides failed "to reach consensus".

But on Saturday Saudi Interior Minister Prince Ahmad bin Abdul Aziz insisted Syrian pilgrims were not barred, except those who applied too late for hajj visas.

- AFP

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