More than a million Muslims have embarked on the yearly Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, after last year's holy event was marred by a deadly stampede that killed hundreds and stoked tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The sacred Muslim pilgrimage takes place over five days — and on Sunday, it reached its climax, as NPR's Alice Fordham tells our Newscast unit. "Beginning at dawn, the masses congregated to pray on the mountain where they believe the Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon," Alice reports.
Prayer on this mountain, called Mount Arafat and located 12 miles east of Mecca, "is believed to offer the best chance of erasing past sins and starting anew," as The Associated Press explains. This day "is the one time during the hajj when roughly all pilgrims are in the same place at the same time," the wire service adds, and the pilgrims hail from more than 160 countries.
"All Muslims on Earth wish they could have been here today. Thanks to Allah for enabling me to be here," Egyptian pilgrim Mahmoud Awny told the AP.
The pilgrimage to Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad's birthplace, is a religious obligation in Islam. Able-bodied Muslims must do it at least once in their lives, and it's one of five central pillars of the religion. The spiritual experience is also intensely physical.
The Hajj is taking place amid increased security after last year's stampede. "The numbers here are in dispute, but as many as 2,600 pilgrims died when they were trapped in the crush of a crowd on a very narrow street," as Morning Edition reported. "Saudi Arabia, which manages the hajj, investigated how that could have happened, but it's not released results, which has infuriated Iran, which lost hundreds of citizens."
Iran, which is Saudi Arabia's regional rival, actually banned its citizens from participating in this year's pilgrimage.
"The issue of safety of pilgrims goes to the heart of the Saudi government's legitimacy," as Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival, tells Morning Edition. He says that Iran's assertions that Saudi Arabia was not able to secure the pilgrimage and then did not properly care for the victims is meant to put pressure on the kingdom.
The Saudi government has "introduced new safety measures for this year's hajj, including electronic wristbands for pilgrims and more surveillance cameras and other technology for improved crowd control," as The Wall Street Journal reports.
Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposite sides of the ongoing war in Yemen. "And Saudi Arabia's chief cleric recently said Iranians were not Muslims," as Alice reports. "That cleric usually preaches a sermon on the mountain, but this year he did not, citing ill health."
According to the BBC, Iran has endorsed "an alternative event on Saturday at the holy city of Karbala in Iraq."
The political backdrop, however, likely matters little to the pilgrims who have waited their whole lives to participate in the holy event. "It's marvelous," Egyptian pilgrim Louza told the BBC. "I'm here closer to God. It's an indescribable feeling."