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Muslim pilgrims climb the Mountain of Mercy on the Plain of Arafat near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Hassan Ammar/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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By AYA BATRAWY
MECCA, Saudi Arabia -- Millions of Muslim pilgrims converged Wednesday on the holy city of Mecca in preparation for the hajj pilgrimage, many of them praying for unity in the Islamic world at a time of turmoil.
Some of the estimated 3.4 million faithful attending this year's pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia circled the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine located in the grand mosque at Mecca's heart.
Others headed to the rocky desert hill of Mount Arafat to spend the night before a day of prayer and contemplation that marks the start of the hajj.
Muslims believe the rituals, which began Thursday and end Monday, trace the footsteps of the prophets Abraham, Ishmael and Muhammad.
Many say the experience of worshipping alongside hundreds of thousands of the faithful makes them feel as though Islam transcends the political and sectarian conflicts dividing the Muslim world.
Standing shoulder to shoulder in prayer, the pilgrims say that this year, more than ever, they are praying for unity among the Umma, an Arabic word related to "mother" and which refers to the global Islamic community.
The men dress in seamless white terrycloth garments meant to symbolize the equality of mankind and a return to God.
Women, forgoing perfume, makeup and fitted outfits, have draped themselves in loose long clothing, covering their hair in the traditional Islamic headscarf as a way to focus on the internal soul, rather than outward appearances.
The pilgrimage comes as a civil war rages in Syria, threatening to tear apart the fabric of one of the Middle East's most diverse nations. More than 30,000 people have died, according to activists. Graphic images of shelling and massacre fill TV screens, in one of the first Muslim civil wars to be brought so powerfully into people's living rooms.
In Egypt, the public is divided over the country's direction under a new Islamist government, and the degree to which Islamic Shariah law will be incorporated into the constitution.
In neighboring Libya, pro-government militiamen have fought their way into Bani Walid, one of the country's last bastions of support for the former regime, in an aftershock of 2011's bloody eight-month civil war.
In Pakistan, people are grappling with the shooting of a schoolgirl by the Taliban.
In Myanmar, Muslims say they are under attack from members of the Buddhist majority. More than 90 people were killed during the summer there and some 70,000 people have been displaced by the conflict.
And weeks before the start of hajj on Thursday, protests--at times deadly--had erupted across much of the Islamic world to denounce an inflammatory film produced in the United States that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, fraud and madman.
Ali Ahmad Younis, a Libyan who said his sons were are all rebel fighters during last year's civil war to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi, broke down in a well of tears, his emotions overwhelming him.
"I wish all the Arab nations would unite," Younis said, wiping a stream of tears from his face. "I prayed to God that all Arabs and the Umma can unite."