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Arbaeen: Millions of pilgrims gather in Karbala for world’s largest annual public gathering

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On Friday, September 8, 2023, millions of Shia Muslims and some people of other faiths from around the world converged on the holy city of Karbala in Iraq to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third Shia Muslim Imam.’

The event, known as Arbaeen, is the world’s largest annual public gathering, surpassing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. According to the records of Al-Abbas holy shrine, the total number of pilgrims visiting Karbala this year reached a record 22.19 million.

Imam Hussein was killed in 680 AD on the plains of Karbala in a battle against the forces of the Caliph Yazid, whose ascendancy to the caliphate was contested. He is revered by Shia Muslims as a symbol of universal freedom, compassion and social justice.

The pilgrims make their journey to Karbala on foot, often covering hundreds of kilometers from cities in Iraq and Iran. Along the route, volunteers set up stations to provide them with food, water and shelter, while local residents open their doors to anyone who needs a place to rest.

Many pilgrims opt to walk 80 km (50 miles) from the nearby city of Najaf, where Imam Ali, Hussein’s father and the first Shia Imam, is buried. Those who come from distant cities, such as Mashhad in Iran, which is 2,600 km (1,600 miles) away by road, choose to drive.

The pilgrimage culminates in a massive gathering at the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, where millions of people pay tribute and perform rituals such as praying, reciting poems and beating their chests in mourning. The atmosphere is both solemn and festive, as pilgrims express their grief for Hussein’s martyrdom and their joy for his legacy.

Arbaeen is also an occasion for social and political activism, as many pilgrims carry banners and flags with slogans denouncing oppression, injustice and tyranny. Some also use the event to voice their support for various causes and movements, such as the Palestinian struggle, the Yemeni war and the anti-government protests in Iraq.

Arbaeen is not only a religious event, but also a cultural and humanitarian one. It showcases the diversity and unity of the Shia community, as well as its generosity and hospitality towards others. It also demonstrates the resilience and courage of the Iraqi people, who have endured decades of war, violence and instability.

Arbaeen is an event that transcends all boundaries and barriers, and invites everyone to join in its message of peace, love and justice.

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