More than two million Muslims begin Hajj pilgrimage

TOPSHOT- Muslim worshippers perform prayers around the Kaaba Islam's holiest shrine at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca

More than two million Muslims begin Hajj pilgrimage

Over one million Muslim pilgrims have already arrived with another one-and-a-half expected to show up ahead of the world's single largest yearly gathering in the holy city of Mecca.

Every Muslim is required to complete the hajj journey to Islam´s holiest sites at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so.

On Monday, pilgrims will climb nearby Mount Arafat for the climax of Haj, praying and reading the Holy Quran.

Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the kingdom's economy away from oil.

Eid al-Adha includes the slaughter of sheep, with the meat distributed to Muslims in need.

Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the spokesman of the Saudi Interior Ministry, told journalists Saturday that over 2 million Muslims from overseas and inside the kingdom would be taking part in this year's hajj. The ritual symbolises Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, on the order of God.

Saudi authorities have said Qatari pilgrims were welcome at the hajj and last week denied it was blocking them from travelling to the kingdom's holy sites.

When the pilgrim wakes for prayer time - five times daily in Islam - workers will sterilise the pod before handing it over to the next pilgrim.

"There is a comprehensive electronic agenda for every pilgrim and we have provided many apps that offer guidance", Minister of Hajj and Umrah Mohammed Bintin told Reuters.

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Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved in proxy wars, including in Yemen and Syria, and tensions between the two have spilled over into the Hajj in the past.

Millions of Muslims gather every year in the holy, Saudi Arabian city of Mecca for Hajj -- a pilgrimage that includes a series of specific rituals carried out by the Prophet Mohammad almost 1,400 years ago.

They have cut all ties with Qatar - which denies the charges - and banned all flights to and from Doha.

Saudi Arabia, and the three other Arab countries, closed land, air and sea links with Qatar in June past year, accusing it of funding terrorism, which Doha denies.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia's management of the Hajj has courted controversy over its record on safety and political rivalries with several of its neighbours.

"We are mainly concerned with the comfort and security of all the pilgrims without any distinctions or disparities", said Saudi chief of army staff, Gen. Fayyad bin Hamid Al-Ruwaili.

Iranian pilgrims are also in attendance this year.

Saudi Arabia has drawn harsh criticism for a crackdown on political dissent since the appointment a year ago of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose modernisation campaign has grabbed headlines around the world.

While rights campaigners have welcomed the reforms, they have also expressed alarm about a crackdown on dissent.

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