TONGI, Bangladesh (AP) – Some 3 million Muslim devotees raised their hands in prayer for global peace, putting aside their country’s sometimes violent struggle with political corruption and Islamic extremists, at one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.

The final prayer Sunday capped a three-day Islamic gathering on the sandy banks of the River Turag in a small industrial town just north of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Pilgrims, many of whom left work early to join the prayer, streamed into the site stretching 190 acres along both banks of the river. As the crowd overflowed the space, people arrived at the site on packed boats or climbed on to the rooftops of nearby buildings.

The annual gathering shuns politics, which have become increasingly bloody in Bangladesh, and focuses on reviving the tenets of Islam and promoting peace and harmony. Participants discuss the Quran, Islam’s holy book, pray, and listen to sermons by Islamic scholars from around the world.

Though extra buses and trains were sent to ferry devotees to and from the prayer site, there was standing room only, even atop the train cars, and many passengers hung on to the sides through open windows.

Many others simply walked the 12 miles back the city. Kaium Biswas, a local police official, said police estimated the number of pilgrims at 3 million, a significant increase over the 2.5 million thought to have attended last year.

About 20,000 security officials, including troops, have been deployed to the area of the gathering to prevent violence, said police official Biswas, following months of often violent protests to push for electoral reform. In recent weeks, feuding between two former prime ministers – Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina – has triggered violent street protests, forcing President Iajuddin Ahmed to impose a state of emergency on Jan. 11. National elections had been scheduled for Jan. 22 but were postponed due to the violence, which has killed 34 people.

On Sunday, 13 more politicians were arrested, the latest incident in the fight over accusations of doctored voter rolls. No new election date has been set. Both Zia and Hasina attended the event on Sunday, but the two sat far from each other.

Bangladesh has also suffered violence at the hands of a banned Islamic group, the Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, that wants strict Islamic rule in the country, which is governed by secular laws. The group is blamed for a string of bombings around the country that killed 26 people and wounded dozens of others in 2005.

“Each year more and more people are joining the mass prayer. This shows how Bangladeshi Muslims love peace and are opposed to those who propagate militancy,” said Abul Kalam, an Islamic scholar. Though Sunday is a work day in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh, many devotees closed their shops or left their offices early to join the prayer.

“It’s a great feeling. I feel proud that I’m among millions of people seeking divine blessings for peace in the world,” said Abdul Malek, who closed his convenience store in Dhaka to join the festival. Female devotees, with the exception of high-ranking officials, were not allowed to attend, but hundreds gathered in nearby villages to take part in the event.

Abdur Rahim, a spokesman for Tablig Jamaat, an organization of Islamic preachers that sponsored the event, added that several thousands of the worshippers were from outside Bangladesh.

The annual World Congregation of Muslims, or “Bishwa Ijtema,” has been held each year since 1966 on the banks of the River Turag in Tongi, just north of the capital, Dhaka.

Volunteers set up tents and troops installed seven temporary bridges. Security officials watched pilgrims heading toward the river from watchtowers and used metal detectors to search for weapons, though the site was not cordoned off in any way. More than 50 security cameras were installed, and makeshift police camps went up along the main road toward the river banks from Dhaka.

Nearly nine-tenths of Bangladesh’s 144 million people are Muslims.


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