MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - More than two million Muslims began the haj pilgrimage Saturday, heading to a tent camp outside the holy city of Mecca to follow the route Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.
Over the past week, a sea of worshipers swept into Mecca, where authorities have mounted a vast security operation to avert any militant attacks, deadly stampedes or political activities that could embarrass Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a bit like drinking from the sea — no matter how much you drink your thirst is never quenched. That’s why I come over and over again,” said Hassan al-Sayed, an Egyptian pilgrim.
Some pilgrims walked, carrying their bags, while others took buses moving slowly through the crowds to the Mina area east of Mecca. Men were dressed in simple white robes, marking a state of ihram, or ritual purity.
“It’s a beautiful feeling, very beautiful, especially when you see the Kaaba,” said a Moroccan woman called Sanna after visiting the ancient cubic shrine at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. “I hope I can return again, with God’s help.”
Late Saturday pilgrims on foot, in buses and some in wheelchairs head to Mount Arafat, about 15 km (10 miles) outside the city, for the climax of haj Sunday. When they arrive they will spend hours in prayer and asking for forgiveness.
“I pray to God to plant mercy in people’s hearts,” said 55-year-old carpenter Muhammad Hassan as he walked with a carpet rolled up over his shoulder, trying to find a place to sleep.
The Eid al-Adha, or feast of the sacrifice, begins on Monday, when pilgrims begin three days of casting stones at walls in a symbolic renunciation of the devil.
Authorities have made renovations over the past year to ease the flow of pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque and on the disaster-prone Jamarat Bridge. In January 2006, 362 people were crushed to death on the bridge, the worst haj tragedy since 1990.
“I came here because I have always wished to come,” said Umm Hassan from Egypt. “I hope God gives me the health and fortune to come a second and third and even more times.”
The flow of traffic was notably smoother than last year, as more pilgrims were transported on buses and authorities imposed stringent checks on entry points to the Mecca area to keep out people without haj permits hoping to join the rites.
The government says it will stop Saudis and foreign residents from taking part without official permits, a main cause of overcrowding. Over 1.75 million haj visas have been granted to Muslims abroad, and at least 500,000 locals receive authorization.
“The objective of this work is to account for all pilgrims, whether they are Saudis or non-Saudis,” said organizer Ahmed al-Sulaimi as security forces stopped cars at a checkpoint.
The government warned pilgrims not to politicize the haj.
“Saudi Arabia is above any party or political intentions behind the haj. Pilgrims should not raise any slogans other than that of Islam,” Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh said in comments published in Saudi newspapers.
There have been clashes between police and Iranian pilgrims in the past over political slogans. Sectarian tensions have arisen recently in the Arab world after Shi’ite Muslims came to power in Iraq, emboldening Iran and its Shi’ite allies.
Disputes between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah delayed and prevented some Palestinian pilgrims from arriving, adding another potential flashpoint.
Speaking in Mecca, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Hamas. “Unfortunately, this is the first time in the history of the Palestinian people that pilgrims were prevented. Israel never once prevented pilgrims,” he told reporters.
The Saudi government is also wary of militancy. Despite an al Qaeda campaign to destabilize Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2006, The haj has never been targeted by al Qaeda militants.
Islamist militants rampaged through the Indian financial capital of Mumbai last week, killing 171 people.
Additional reporting by Nael al-Shyoukhi; editing by Matthew Jones