Some 3 million Muslims from around the world marched through a desert valley outside Mecca on Thursday on the first day of the annual hajj pilgrimage. According to the AP, the pilgrims hiked through the eight-mile valley to Mina, starting a series of rituals to cleanse themselves of sin.
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. "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 pilgrimage is not a place for raising political banners ... or slogans that divide Muslims, whom God has ordered to be unified," Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister Sheik Salih bin Abdulaziz told pilgrims Thursday. "The hajj is a school for teaching unity, mercy and cooperation."
Saudi authorities estimate nearly 3 million pilgrims are attending this year's hajj - more than 1.6 million from abroad, with the rest Saudis or other residents of the kingdom. Some 50,000 police and other security forces have been deployed in the area.
The last hajj in January was marred by a deadly stampede which killed 364 people in Mina during a ritual which involves casting stones at pillars representing Satan.