Haj begins

MECCA – Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims began a mass movement on Thursday out of the holy city of Mecca towards nearby Mina at the launch of Haj.

This year’s Haj comes with Saudi authorities striving to protect pilgrims from two viruses, Ebola and Mers.

It is also taking place against the backdrop of widespread revulsion among Muslims towards the ISIL militant group.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan have joined Washington in air strikes in Syria against the militants, who have taken over areas of that country and Iraq where they have committed a spate of atrocities.

Authorities say about 1.4 million believers have come from abroad to take part, alongside pilgrims from Saudi Arabia.

“It is a beautiful feeling,” said Aziza Yousfy, 60, from Algeria, before leaving Mecca.

Seeing nearby Mina Valley and Mount Arafat “has always been a dream for me”, she said.

Sayed Tajamul Haq, 64, an Indian pilgrim walking with his wife, voiced hope that “God will accept our prayers for forgiveness and mercy”, during an experience he described with a smile as “fantastic”.

A French convert to Islam had driven 7000 kilometres from North Africa to take part, the Arab News reported.

Pilgrims were moving a few kilometres from Mecca to Mina by bus or on foot on Thursday.

In Mina, they will pray and rest before moving on to Mount Arafat for the climax of the pilgrimage rituals on Friday.

Security has not noticeably increased around the holy sites, but a witness saw three checkpoints between Jeddah and Mecca, where security officers checked for Haj permits.

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