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U.S., Afghan and coalition troops are helping groups of Afghan Muslims to complete the hajj, the annual religious pilgrimage to Mecca.

Last week, some 150 Afghans flew from Kandahar Airfield to Saudi Arabia, with a little assistance from the troops.

Making the hajj at least once in a lifetime is one of the pillars of Islam.

More than 4 million Muslims from throughout the world are expected to participate in the hajj this year.

In recent years, the sheer number of pilgrims has led to stampedes and other accidents in which hundreds have been killed.

The Afghan travelers “assembled at a stadium in downtown Kandahar with the assistance of Afghan National Police officers, and then rode buses to the airport, where the Afghan Border Police provided security,” according to a U.S. military news release.

“The trip to Medina, Saudi Arabia, is one of many commercial flights over a two-week period carrying pilgrims from southern Afghanistan to their Hajj destination. So far about 500 Hajj participants have departed from Kandahar, with about 3,000 more expected.”

U.S. and other coalition troops gave each Afghan traveler a bag containing a prayer rug, towel, thermos, razors, shaving cream and other personal-hygiene items, a U.S. spokesman said.

“It’s an honor and a privilege for coalition forces to support those Afghans making this important journey,” Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara, Combined Joint Task Force 76 spokesman, said.

The hajj is considered a journey of a lifetime for a devout Muslim.

A person who has completed the hajj returns to his or her community with the honorific “Haji.”

The pilgrimage consists of traveling to the sacred city of Mecca, which is closed to all non-Muslim’s during the Islamic calendar’s month of Dhu al-Hijjah. The whole city is considered one of the most holy sites in the Muslim world.

Pilgrims perform a series of walks and symbolic actions at various sites.

After completing the rites, according to the online Wikipedia, many male pilgrims will shave their heads, and many women cut off a lock of their hair as a symbol of rebirth.

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