RELIGION

Muslim pilgrims begin hajj, but this year without Iranians

  • Worshippers circle the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have arrived in the kingdom to participate in the annual hajj pilgrimage, which starts Saturday, a ritual required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their life. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty).

    Worshippers circle the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have arrived in the kingdom to participate in the annual hajj pilgrimage, which starts Saturday, a ritual required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their life. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty).  (The Associated Press)

  • A Turkish Muslim woman prays inside Hiraa cave, where Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from God to preach Islam, on Noor Mountain, on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. Muslim pilgrims have begun arriving at the holiest sites in Islam ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

    A Turkish Muslim woman prays inside Hiraa cave, where Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from God to preach Islam, on Noor Mountain, on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. Muslim pilgrims have begun arriving at the holiest sites in Islam ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)  (The Associated Press)

  • Iranian protesters hold placards with pictures of Ayatollah Sheik Isa Qassim, Bahrain's top Shiite Muslim cleric during an anti-Saudi rally after weekly Friday prayer in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. Thousands of Iranians marched through the streets Friday to protest Saudi Arabia ahead of the hajj, a sign of soured relations between the two countries following last year's crush and stampede during the annual pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

    Iranian protesters hold placards with pictures of Ayatollah Sheik Isa Qassim, Bahrain's top Shiite Muslim cleric during an anti-Saudi rally after weekly Friday prayer in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. Thousands of Iranians marched through the streets Friday to protest Saudi Arabia ahead of the hajj, a sign of soured relations between the two countries following last year's crush and stampede during the annual pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)  (The Associated Press)

Close to 2 million people from around the world have begun performing the rites of the Islamic hajj pilgrimage, entering into a state of physical and spiritual purity and circling the cube-shaped Kaaba with their palms facing upward in supplication and prayer.

Notably absent this year are Iranian pilgrims. Last year, some 64,000 Iranians took part in the hajj, but disputes with the Saudi government prompted Tehran to bar its citizens from taking part this year.

Saudi Arabia has blamed Iranian officials for the decision and suggests it was politically motivated to publicly pressure the kingdom. Iran says Saudi "incompetence" caused a crush and stampede during last year's hajj that killed more than 460 of its citizens.

The hajj, which begins Saturday, is one of the world's largest pilgrimages.