Two million Muslim pilgrims ending annual hajj

Two million Muslim pilgrims ending annual hajj

MINA, Saudi Arabia - Two million Muslim pilgrims begin leaving the holy city of Mecca on Monday, concluding the annual hajj during which Saudi leaders lashed out at Islamic extremism.

The faithful will symbolically stone the devil for a third day in the Mina Valley before many will move to nearby Mecca.

There, they will circumambulate the holy cube-shaped Kaaba, before returning home having reached the spiritual peak of their lives.

The hajj is one of the world's largest religious festivals and this year drew believers from 163 nations.

Some of the faithful will remain until Tuesday, officially the last day of hajj.

"I wish I could always stay here and not return home," said an Indonesian pilgrim who gave her name only as Umm Mohammed, 58, speaking in Arabic.

This year's hajj attracted just over two million domestic and foreign believers, including almost 1.4 million from abroad, according to the official SPA news agency.

These numbers are roughly the same as last year.

The hajj has drawn a cross-section of humanity, from a few presidents to commoners, including a wounded Syrian rebel war veteran.

This year's pilgrimage came as Saudi Arabia and four other Arab states took part in or gave support to US-led air strikes against Islamic State group jihadists in Syria.

The Sunni extremist group has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, declaring a "caliphate" where it has been accused of carrying out widespread atrocities, including mass executions, crucifixions, beheadings, and forcing women into slavery.

Saudi King Abdullah told leaders of parties of pilgrims from Islamic states on Sunday that extremism must be eradicated because it "has nothing to do with Islam."

On Friday the kingdom's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, said Muslim leaders must strike the enemies of Islam with "an iron hand".

He made the comments from the holy site of Mount Arafat, during the peak of hajj.

Some pilgrims denounced atrocities by the Islamic State group but many also expressed concerns about the US-led air war against them.

This year's hajj came with authorities on guard against infectious diseases.

But no cases of the deadly MERS or Ebola viruses have been recorded among the pilgrims, SPA quoted a health ministry official as saying on Saturday.

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