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Pilgrims Stream Into Saudi Arabia As Hajj Begins

Muslim pilgrims perform the evening prayer near the Grand Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Mecca on November 12.
Over 2 million Muslims have begun the annual hajj pilgrimage to Islam's holy city of Mecca, following the steps believed to be taken by the Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago.

Travelling on foot, by public transport, and in private cars, the pilgrims streamed through a mountain pass to a valley at Mina, about 3 kilometers outside of Mecca.

Saudi officials say they have granted permits to 1.7 million pilgrims from foreign countries, with some 200,000 reserved for pilgrims coming from within Saudi Arabia and the neighboring Persian Gulf states.

Islam is now embraced by a quarter of the world's population and the hajj is a duty for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it.

In recent years, the hajj pilgrimage has been marred by fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protesters, and deadly stampedes. The Saudis have worked hard to improve facilities to ease the flow of pilgrims since 2006, when 362 people were crushed to death by a stampeding crowd.

A Chinese-built train is in operation for the first time in a bid to reduce the risk of overcrowding and to ease road congestion. The $1.8 billion railway project is expected to transport some 180,000 passengers during the five-day event.

The pilgrimage, one of the world's largest, has so far proceeded without incident. But Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz warned on November 10 that an attack by Al-Qaeda could not be ruled out, prompting the deployment of Saudi combat forces.

However, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said in a statement today that it had no intention of targeting pilgrims during the hajj.

compiled from agency reports