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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moslems Make Journey From Moscow to Mecca

Aitmuhammad Aitbayev's smile was as bright as Thursday's sunshine as the cheerful 73-year-old waited to leave for his first hajj, the annual pilgrimage of the world's Moslems to holy sites in Mecca and Medina in Saudia Arabia.

Aitbayev, who is from Omsk in Siberia, was one of 114 Russian Moslems who gathered Thursday outside the Moscow Cathedral Mosque in preparation for their departure.

"At least once in your lifetime, you have to go there for your blood and sweat-earned money," said Aitbayev, who wore a traditional Tatar skullcap and World War II medals pinned to his jacket. Like most in the group, Aitbayev had to scrimp and save to make the $1,500 trip, drawing on a modest pension and help from his three children.

A devout Moslem, he already knows Mecca so well from books that acquaintances believe he has already been there.

"Now I will see it with my own eyes and feel with my hands the place where Adam and Eve met, and the tomb of our Prophet" he said, his eyes shining with excitement.

He was referring to the opening and closing events of the hajj, which starts with the pilgrims standing on Mount Arafat near Mecca, where the parents of humankind are believed to have met again after Allah sent them down to earth and where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his last sermon to the faithful. After walking seven times around the Kaaba sanctuary and running between two holy hills, As-Safa and Al-Marua, the three million pilgrims from all over the world end their journey at Medina, where they worship at the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed.

The hajj, which starts this year on April 17 and ends five days later, is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with belief in Allah as the single God, daily prayer, fasting during Ramadan, and giving alms. The Koran commands Moslems to make a hajj at least once in their lifetimes, if their health and material circumstances permit.

In the Soviet Union, however, most Moslems did not get the chance. Dr. Farid Asadullin, deputy chief of the Moscow-based Spiritual Directorate for Moslems of Central Russia, said no Soviet Moslems were allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia until 1955, when the government began allowing small groups of clergy to go.

The mass hajj started in the perestroika years, when several thousands Soviet Moslems started to go every year. Last year, 12,000 Russian citizens walked around the Kaaba -- the sanctuary in Mecca which, Moslems believe, was erected by Abraham and Ishmael with the assistance of the Archangel Jebrail, or Gabriel. Asadullin estimates a similar number of Russian Moslems will go on the pilgrimage this year.

On Thursday, some people had already been waiting several days for their documents to be processed, sleeping on their luggage in the mosque.

After Mufti Ravil Gainuttdin, Moscow's leading imam, gave farewell instructions to the faithful, buses were to take them to Sheremetyevo airport, where they were to board a Royal Jordanian Air plane to Amman, Jordan. There they will perform the rite of intention, changing into white unsewn robes, and board a plane to Jidda, Saudi Arabia. They will take buses to Mecca from there.

The long trip is a daunting prospect for elderly Russian pilgrims. The temperature in Saudi Arabia is a very un-Russian 40 degrees Celsius.

"I wish I could have gone when I was younger, but it was impossible then," said Asia Harimova, 72, who saved from her pension and had help from her family to make the trip. "I am worried about my health, but I am happy -- I dreamed about of it all my life."