3m Muslims begin annual hajj

Updated: 2006-12-29 09:29

MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia - In his tent in the desert outside the holy city of Mecca, Suleiman Ibrahim still couldn't believe his luck. His wife, sitting nearby, broke down in tears of joy Thursday as he recounted the day they learned they would perform Islam's hajj pilgrimage.

"The whole family started singing and congratulating me," said Ibrahim, a furniture maker from the southern Egyptian city of Sohag who was one of tens of thousands of Egyptians picked in a government lottery to make the pilgrimage.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (C) prays inside the Grand Mosque during the haj in Mecca December 28, 2006. [Reuters]
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (C) prays inside the Grand Mosque during the haj in Mecca December 28, 2006. [Reuters]

"Hamdiya cried then, too," the 45-year-old said, nodding to his wife.

Ibrahim was among nearly 3 million Muslims from around the world who massed in tent cities on the outskirts of Mecca on Thursday for the start of the annual hajj. For many, it is a once in a lifetime chance to cleanse their sins in one of the most important rites of Islam.

This year's hajj takes place amid increasing worries across the Islamic world over the bloodshed in Iraq, violence in the Palestinian territories and a new war in Somalia.

Amid those crises, tensions have increased between the two main sects of Islam, Sunni and Shia, whose members come together in the five days of hajj rituals centered around Mecca, birthplace of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

"We will not allow sectarian tensions from any party during the hajj season," Saudi Arabia's interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, told reporters ahead of the rituals.

The Islamic affairs minister, Sheik Salih bin Abdulaziz, stressed that point Thursday, telling pilgrims: "The pilgrimage is not a place for raising political banners ... or slogans that divide Muslims, whom God has ordered to be unified."

But for most pilgrims the top concern was faith, not politics.

On Thursday morning, hundreds of thousands opened their pilgrimage in Mecca by circling Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba, the black cubic stone that Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.

"For us it is a vacation away from work and daily life to renew yourself spiritually," said Ahmed Karkoutly, an American physician from Brownsville, Texas. "You feel you are part of a universe fulfilling God's will. It's a cosmic motion, orbiting the Kaaba."

Pilgrims filled the streets surrounding the Kaaba, some prostrating in prayer, others browsing outdoor markets to buy perfumes, fabrics, prayer beads and other souvenirs. In gleaming malls overlooking the Kaaba, pilgrims visited stores like the Body Shop or lined up at the Cinnabon.

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