1.5M Muslims begin annual pilgrimage to Mina

 15m-muslims-begin-annual-pilgrimage-to-mina. MAKKAH, Saudi Arabia, Close to 1.5 million Muslims in Saudi Arabia began their annual Hajj from the Grand Mosque in Mecca to Mina, three miles to the east.

Ghassan, a Saudi officer, looks at Muslims pilgrims while they pray at the birthplace of prophet Mohammed at the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on December 4, 2008. Millions of Muslims head to the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to make the annual Hajj pilgrimage. All fit and financially able Muslims are expected to perform the Hajj at least once in their life. File Photo by Mohammad Kheirkhah/UPI | License Photo

The pilgrimage began Saturday amid new safety measures, including tighter security and electronic bracelets, following last year’s stampede that left more than 2,000 people dead.

At least 216 foreign pilgrims were forced to return to their countries for failing to follow Hajj instructions, including 52 people who forged passports, Saudi authorities said.

An additional 189,000 people were turned away after they were stopped at security checkpoints. Authorities said violators could face imprisonment and deportation.

Missing from this year’s gathering are tens of thousands of Shia Iranians due to diplomatic tensions with Sunni Saudi Arabia.

The Hajj retraces the steps the Prophet Muhammad took nearly 1,500 years ago and is meant to unite Muslims and demonstrate their devotion to Allah. The pilgrimage concludes Sunday.

By Sarah Mulé