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Annual Hajj Pilgrimage Comes to a Close

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) -- Thousands of buses and cars streamed out of the holy city of Mecca on Thursday as nearly 3 million pilgrims ended their hajj pilgrimage -- a journey of faith that for many Muslims is a lifelong dream.

The event passed without a repeat of the deadly stampedes that marred past pilgrimage, mainly thanks to construction and security projects the Saudi authorities put in place in Mecca and nearby holy sites. In 2006, 363 people were killed in a crush at the desert plain of Mina where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil.

After living in frugal conditions for the past week while performing rituals and going from one holy site to another, the pilgrims left Mecca in several thousand vehicles Thursday. They headed in two directions: to the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, the second holiest city in Islam after Mecca, or the Red Sea port city of Jiddah to board ships or planes home.

''Thank God that I completed the pilgrimage,'' said Ali Elteel of Lebanon, as he left Mecca's Grand Mosque where he circled the Kaaba, a large cubic stone structure that Muslims turn for their five daily prayers.

''I hope to live long enough to come back here again,'' added Elteel, his head shaved in a tradition dating back to the Prophet Muhammad's own pilgrimage more than 1,400 years ago.

The farewell circling of the Kaaba is traditionally the last event performed by pilgrims before they leave.

In their end-of-hajj prayers, pilgrims ask God to accept their pilgrimage, a once in a lifetime requirement for every able-bodied Muslim who can financially afford the trip.

Many praised the new safety measures implemented since the 2006 stampede.

The Mina rites of stoning have long been the most dangerous because huge crowds must pass by three walls representing Satan and pelt each with pebbles.

''I was here about six years ago and I am comparing this with the last time I was here,'' said Naseer Latif, a pilgrim from Pakistan. ''It is very, very good. The possibility of stampede is now almost nil.''

Others, like Emad Al-Nawsera, a pilgrim from Egypt, could not conceal their joy in completing the rituals. ''I'm so happy because I have finished my Hajj,'' he said.

During the hajj, pilgrims seek forgiveness for their sins and meditate on their faith, while tracing the steps of Muhammad and also Abraham, who Muslims believe built the Kaaba.

This year nearly 3 million pilgrims performed the hajj, which historically has been a means of bringing together the many races and nations that make up the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.
Or think ye that ye shall be abandoned, as though Allah did not know those among you who strive with might and main, and take none for friends and protectors except Allah, His Messenger, and the (community of) Believers? But Allah is well- acquainted with (all) that ye do.

Quran: 9:16
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