MECCA, Saudi Arabia – 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.