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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Two million pilgrims converge on Mecca for the Hajj

From Indonesia to France to Nigeria, tens of thousands of Muslims from all over the world pass through the gateway to the Hajj every day

Muslim worshippers perform prayers around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on August 28, 2017, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy cityKarim Sahib/ AFP Photo
Muslim worshippers perform prayers around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on August 28, 2017, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy cityKarim Sahib/ AFP Photo

Two million Muslims from across the globe are converging on Mecca in Saudi Arabia for Hajj, a religious duty and for some pilgrims the journey of a lifetime.

This year sees the return of pilgrims from Iran — as tensions between Riyadh and Tehran remain high — and comes with the Gulf region mired in political crisis, and as ISIL militants are squeezed out of Iraq and Syria.

"I'm so excited because many people dream of coming to this place," said 47-year-old Eni from Indonesia, her face framed in a sand-coloured veil trimmed with lace.

"We feel more religious when we leave this place."

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, and provides the largest number of pilgrims for Hajj.

Eni's compatriots throng Jeddah airport 80 kilometres west of Mecca, as tens of thousands of pilgrims pass through the gateway to Hajj every day.

But Eni is almost oblivious to the hubbub that surrounds her as she studies her Quran in the immense heat, pearls of sweat beading her face.

"After my first pilgrimage I felt I wanted to come back to feel myself close to him," she said of the Prophet Mohammed before returning her attention to Islam's holy book.

"This year we expect around two million pilgrims," Abdelmajeed Mohammad Al Afghani, director of Hajj and Umra affairs, said.

Iranians are back after not attending in 2015 following a deadly Mecca stampede the previous year that killed more than 2,400 pilgrims.

The dead included 464 Iranians, the largest number of any nationality.

After the disaster, Tehran railed against Saudi Arabia.

The two countries then severed diplomatic relations in January 2016 after Saudi diplomatic posts in Iran were attacked by protesters angry at the kingdom's execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr Al Nimr.

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Meanwhile, for nearly three months the Gulf has been embroiled in its worst ever political crisis, with Saudi Arabia — along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — facing off against Qatar, which they accuse of being too close to Iran and backing extremism.

A boycott imposed on Qatar since June 5 has resulted in land, sea and air links in the country being badly affected.

But Saudi authorities have opened the border crossing to let Qatari pilgrims.

The kingdom “welcomes all Muslims from around the world who visit the country for their pilgrimage", Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir said.

According to the Qatari Islamic affairs ministry, 20,000 Qatari citizens have registered to take part in this year's Hajj.

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Watch: Saudi forces parade through Mecca ahead of Hajj

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In the arrivals hall at Jeddah airport, determined pilgrims walk hastily to avoid losing contact with other members of their group.

"I'm so happy to be a part of it this year," said 43-year-old Nigerian Mohammed Said, in the seamless two-piece white garment or "ihram" worn by male pilgrims.

"I want to do it every year if I can afford it," added Said who is in Saudi Arabia for his third Hajj.

"Every time it's different — it's like I'm doing it for the first time."

For Slimane Zeghidour, author of La vie quotidienne à La Mecque: De Mahomet à nos jours (Daily Life in Mecca from Mohammed to Today), going on Hajj takes pilgrims to another level altogether.

The ritual is so physically and mentally demanding, he said, "The pilgrim has to run, move, and perform several stages".

"Many pilgrims come from Asia or Africa, far from the Middle East, and they come to a place where they can try to forget their lives back home."

While terrorist attacks across the world will be on the minds of many pilgrims, the threat from extremists has not put off pilgrims such as Fatima, from Perpignan in southern France.

"I've been waiting to go on this journey for a long time," she said, donning a red veil like the other people in her group.

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