Arbaeen: Millions of Shia Muslims gather in Karbala in world's largest annual pilgrimage

Millions of Shia pilgrims are gathering in Iraq's holy city of Karbala to mark Arbaeen, commemorating the end of a 40-day mourning period after the killing of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, during a battle in 680 AD. His martyrdom is considered a defining event in the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Huge crowds of Shia Muslim pilgrims gather outside the Imam Hussein shrine in the holy city of KarbalaAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

Arbaeen is the world's largest annual gathering, with the number of pilgrims far exceeding the two million visitors who descend on Mecca for the Hajj. In 2015, Iraqi state-run media said more than 22 million pilgrims visited Karbala, setting a record for the annual pilgrimage, though that figure could not be independently verified.

Shia Muslim pilgrims fill the streets of the holy city of Karbala during ArbaeenAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Shia Muslim pilgrims gather in the holy city of Karbala, IraqAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
A Shia Muslim pilgrim cries during a mourning ritual in KarbalaAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Shia Muslim women take part in a mourning ritual in KarbalaAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Shia Muslim pilgrims take part in a mourning ritual to commemorate Arbaeen in KarbalaAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Shia Muslim pilgrims outside the Imam Hussein shrine in KarbalaAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Shia Muslim pilgrims gather to commemorate Arbaeen in KarbalaReuters
A Shia Muslim woman touches an image depicting Imam Hussein in KarbalaAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

Shia Muslims have commonly been targeted by by hardline Sunni insurgents during the Arbaeen period. Iraqi authorities have adopted stringent security measures for the annual pilgrimage procession. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shia pilgrims made the 80-kilometre (50 mile) trek on foot from Baghdad, escorted by armoured vehicles, soldiers and ambulances. More than a million pilgrims are expected to make the journey on foot from Iran.

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Shia Muslim pilgrims walk past security guards as they head to the holy city of KarbalaAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Shia Muslim pilgrims walk through Najaf as they head for the holy city of KarbalaAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Shia Muslim pilgrims head towards the holy city of Karbala from BaghdadSabah Arar/AFP
Shia Muslim pilgrims walk from Baghdad towards KarbalaSabah Arar/AFP
Shia Muslim pilgrims walk past barbed wire along a road on the southern outskirts of BaghdadSabah Arar/AFP
Pilgrims head from Baghdad towards the holy city of KarbalaSabah Arar/AFP

A suicide bomber killed six people near Karbala on Monday 14 November, at the start of the festival, an attack claimed by the hardline Sunni militants of Islamic State (Isis/Daesh), who regard Shia Muslims as apostates. Undeterred by the threat, huge crowds of Shia pilgrims have flocked to the shrines of Hussein and his half-brother Abbas in Karbala

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