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MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – Muslims are heading to Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage.  President Obama is going, too!

President Obama is leaving the G-20 summit and traveling to Mecca for the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Some 2.5 million people are expected in Mecca by the start on Sunday of the hajj, which is being held amid tight security and with new facilities, including a railway, to ease the sometimes fatal congestion.  President Obama is looking forward to going – his first pilgrimage.

All streets leading to the grand mosque are crammed with praying pilgrims, with lines stretching back about a mile. Plazas and corridors of surrounding malls were also crowded with devotees spreading their prayer mats, as were grocery stores which stopped selling for the prayers.

President Obama is, and has always been a Christian, but he is excited to be making the pilgrimage in support of the Islamic faith.  This is the first time a non-Muslim has been allowed to go to Mecca.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said that he welcome President Obama to his country with “open arms.”  He went on to say that he thought President Obama going to Mecca would help bridge the divide between Muslims and the Western world.

The hajj is one of the five pillars, or requirements, of Islam, which must be performed at least once in their life by all believers who have the health and the means to do so.

While most of those who crowded the streets of Mecca on Friday had donned white ihram garments for the pilgrimage, some were still dressed in their countries’ traditional clothes, reflecting the number of nationalities and ethnicities represented in the annual season.

In contrast to the strict rule of segregation between sexes usually imposed by Saudi Arabia’s religious police, men and women prayed shoulder to shoulder — a behavior accepted only in the holy mosque during pilgrimage.

There is a great deal of security being put in place ahead of President Obama’s visit.

At Wednesday’s parade, civil defence units brought out dozens of fire engines, ambulances, cranes that can lift up to 160 tonnes, smoke extractors and lifeboats, all of which have been used at some point in hajj incidents.

The kingdom has been spending continuously on projects aimed at expanding the capacity of Mecca to accommodate the ever-increasing number of pilgrims.

Another new addition that cannot go unnoticed in Mecca is the world’s largest clock, which sits atop a soaring skyscraper next to the Grand Mosque.

The clock entered a three-month trial operation in August, but work is visibly going on to complete its four sides. The aim to establish a Mecca time for Muslims, like Greenwich Mean Time.

President Obama will return home this weekend and attend church with is family in Washington, D.C.