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Annual Hajj Pilgrimage Begins Amid Tight Security

Religious pilgrims approach Mecca's Grand Mosque on December 5.
(RFE/RL) Pilgrims from all over the world are converging on Mina, a valley close to the Islamic holy city of Mecca, for the first day of the annual rites of the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.

Draped in white robes symbolizing purity, the faithful in Mina will spend the day in prayer before heading to nearby Mount Arafat at dawn on December 7 for the high point of the five-day pilgrimage.

December 8 marks the start of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, during which pilgrims cast stones at walls for three days in a symbolic renunciation of the devil.

The annual hajj is accompanied by tight security by Saudi authorities to prevent possible militant attacks, stampedes or other mishaps.

More than 2 million people are expected to take part in this year's pilgrimage, which Muslims believe cleanses the soul and wins absolution. Every able-bodied Muslim who can financially afford it is meant to perform the hajj at least once in his or her lifetime.

The sheer size of the event inevitably places strains on pilgrims and authorities alike, both in Saudi Arabia and around the world.

A number of pilgrims have reported being unable to reach Mecca due to fraudulent travel agencies eager to cash in on the world's largest religious pilgrimage.

A group of 94 Tajik pilgrims was deported back to Tajikistan this week due to visa irregularities after traveling to Saudi Arabia via Moscow.

"We were detained by officials while crossing the border [and] we were told that our visas were fakes and that we had no right to enter the country," one of those would-be pilgrims, Rahmonali Saburov, told RFERL's Tajik Service. "We got the visas from one of the Russian agencies at the airport. It's the company, which cheated us by selling us fake visas, that is to blame."

Saudi Arabia has taken a raft of measures to avert the fires, clashes between police and protesters, and deadly stampedes that have marred the festivities in years past.

Authorities have made renovations to ease the flow of pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque and on the Jamarat Bridge, where 362 people were crushed to death two years ago.

The event takes place under tight security, with some 100,000 security personnel deployed to maintain order. U.S.-made Sikorsky S-92 helicopters fitted with night-vision equipment are being used this year for the first time during the hajj.

Police have also set up roadblocks on all routes leading to Mecca and check pilgrims for official hajj permits and passports.

Security has been significantly stepped up this year since the pilgrimage comes just over a week after terror attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 171 people and injured more than 300. An Islamist militant group is suspected of training the gunmen in those attacks.

Despite an Al-Qaeda campaign to destabilize Saudi Arabia, the hajj has never been targeted by Al-Qaeda militants.

with additional agency reporting