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More than two million pilgrims begin annual pilgrimage

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March 4, 2001 


MECCA, Saudi Arabia- (AP) - More than 2 million Muslims on Saturday began trekking to a desert plain outside Mecca for the hajj, an annual pilgrimage that fulfills one of the most sacred duties of the Islamic faith.

The hajj chant of "Here I am, oh Almighty, here I am" reverberated across Mecca as pilgrims from around the world made their way to the plain of Mina, five kilometers (three miles) north of this holy city.

Many trudged on foot while others were packed into cars, buses and trucks, some even clinging to the roofs of vehicles.

Police were out in full force, directing traffic, which came to a standstill at several intersections leading to Mina's entrance.

With temperatures hovering around 34 degrees Celsius (93 Fahrenheit), Saudi authorities prepared to distribute millions of water bottles free of charge.

The pilgrims mingled in rituals that are meant to blur the difference between prince and pauper. Men wear simple two-piece seamless white robes and women cover from head-to-toe in modest dress.

Among the pilgrims this year are Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir, Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, and the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina.

The pilgrims will remain in a tent city at Mina overnight in prayer and reflection.

The faithful believe the plain is the site of Prophet Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son to prove his faith in God, a legend common to Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

At dawn Sunday, pilgrims will pray in Mina and resume their journey to Mount Arafat, where they must arrive before dusk.

The arrival in Mount Arafat, a gentle hill 19 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Mecca, marks the peak of the hajj and the Day of Arafat is spent praying and in frequent recitation of "Here I am, oh Almighty, here I am." It is believed to symbolize the day of judgment, when Islam says every person will stand before God and answer for his deeds.

Islam's Prophet Mohammed delivered his last sermon at Arafat in 632, three months before he died. It was during the sermon, Muslims believe, that the last passage of their holy book, the Koran, was revealed to Mohammed.

The other rituals of the hajj will be performed on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Pilgrims will throw stones at two pillars outside Mecca that symbolize the devil, then circle the Kaaba, a large cubic stone structure covered with a black cloth that is Islam's most sacred site. Muslims around the world turn toward the Kaaba while praying.

Meanwhile, 62 Indian pilgrims have died since arriving in Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj, an Indian diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

He said 15 died in the city of Medina and the rest in Mecca over the past few days. All were over 50 and died of natural causes, he said, adding that they will be buried in Saudi Arabia.

Hajj, or pilgrimage, is required at least once of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

The hajj has frequently been marred by tragedy, the most recent in 1998 when more than 100 pilgrims were trampled to death in a stampede.

The two past years have witnessed a trouble-free hajj, mainly due to stringent regulations and improvements to roads and facilities provided by the Saudi government.

Saudi Arabia has said that it is expecting close to 2.5 million people to take part in the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, which has 1.2 billion followers worldwide.

The Kaaba's heavy cloth covering, made of fine silk and engraved with Koranic verses embroidered in gold-plated threads, will be changed Sunday, as it is done every year.

Some 450 kilograms (992 pounds) of silk is used to make the cloth, at a cost of 17 million riyals (dlrs 4.53 million).

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