DHAKA (Reuters Life!) - Seeking divine blessing, thousands of Muslims from around the world held prayers in Bangladesh on Friday, the start of one of the biggest annual gatherings of the faithful after the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Ijtema congregation has been held every year since 1966 on the banks of the Turag river at Tongi, a suburb of Dhaka.
It is organized by the World Tabligh Council, a group of mainly Bangladeshi Muslim scholars who preach the teachings of Islam and its Prophet Mohammad, as well as Bangladesh's religious affairs ministry.
The three-day event focuses on prayer and meditation, and includes lectures from Muslim scholars about the faith.
This year, an estimated 2 million Muslims are expected to attend -- nearly the same number of pilgrims who go to Saudi Arabia to perform the annual haj pilgrimage.
Lectures will be translated into more than half a dozen languages for the international attendees who will camp out in the sprawling venue.
Ijtema volunteers said more than 10,000 foreign Muslims had already arrived by Friday morning, and thousands of police and security forces, more than in previous years, have been deployed to protect them, officials said.
"We have deployed extra force this year as the country has faced continuing threats by militants, including those kill people in the name of Islam," said a senior police officer who declined to be named.
Bangladesh blames a spate of deadly bombings and political assassinations on Islamist radicals it says are trying to destabilize the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
As in previous years, Hasina and opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia are expected to attend the final Ijtema prayers on Sunday.
Reporting by Anis Ahmed; Editing by Miral Fahmy