MAKKAH - Seeking forgiveness from Allah, thousands of Muslim pilgrims have poured into the holy city of Makkah to perform the life-time journey of hajj.
"It's my first time in Makkah for pilgrimage, 32-year-old Koara Abdulrahman, a businessman from Burkina Faso, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Sunday, October 21.
I can't wait to pray in `Arafat.
Chanting Allahu Akbar, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have gathered in Makkah to perform hajj, due to start on Wednesday, October 24.
Walking in groups, the faithful, mostly led by guides with their countries' flags printed on their garments, moved to perform `Umrah (minor pilgrimage) ahead of the major hajj rituals.
Other pilgrims circumambulate the cube-shaped Ka`aba - in which direction Muslims worldwide pray.
Others push their way through the crowds to kiss the Black Stone, which was built by Prophet Ibrahim, while many pray or recite verses of the Noble Qur'an.
"Right now, I've got all the good feelings you can think of," said an Iranian pilgrim, her voice quivering and tears welling up in her eyes.
Saudi authorities said more than 1.6 million foreign pilgrims have already arrived and the numbers are set to grow by Wednesday.
Around 750,000 domestic pilgrims are also expected to take part in the rituals.
Despite several checkpoints on the roads leading to Makkah to prevent illegal pilgrims, huge numbers of unauthorized devotees also join the hajj every year.
One of the five pillars of Islam, hajj consists of several ceremonies meant to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
Hajj starts on the eighth day of the lunar month of Dhul Hijjah, which falls this year on October 24.
Saudi officials say that this year's hajj will not be affected by the turmoil in the Middle East.
"I don't expect pilgrims or the pilgrimage to be affected by what is taking place elsewhere, whether Syria or any other place," Saudi interior minister Prince Ahmad bin Abdul Aziz told reporters.
When asked if pro-regime Syrians could infiltrate the pilgrims coming into the kingdom, which has repeatedly voiced support for the Syrian opposition, and cause trouble, he said that "those coming to hajj are Muslims and Muslims would not hurt one another, especially not during hajj."
However, such an act "would have very bad effects," he warned.
"Whoever tries to use hajj for political aims will be sent back home."
The minister also said that Saudi Arabia is not worried that Iranian pilgrims would cause any trouble during hajj.
"We don't expect any" unrest to be caused by Iranians, Prince Ahmad said.
Iranian pilgrims annually stage a "repudiation of polytheists" rally, a ritual promoted by the late Islamic republic's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to denounce the West and Israel.
In 1987, police attempts to stifle the anti-US and anti-Israeli demonstration sparked clashes in which 402 people died, including 275 Iranians.
Iranian pilgrims have since held their rallies in tents without provoking clashes with security forces in the Sunni-dominated kingdom."The Iranians have assured us that they are as concerned about the comfort of pilgrims as we are," Prince Ahmad said.