08 Sep 2023

The Arba’een pilgrimage held in the past week is a good time to remember the huge numbers of pilgrims who travel each year, and the possibility of access ministries to reach many spiritually hungry people from many different countries in one location.

When we think of religious pilgrimages, many people probably think of the hajj—the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But the reality is, the hajj, with between 2 and 3 million pilgrims in a “good year,” is a large pilgrimage but nowhere near the largest. That honor goes to the Kumbh Mela in India, which literally drew over 200 million people over the course of several weeks in 2019 (50 million on a single day alone).

Arba’een brings over 20 million people to Iraq in honor of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, who was martyred in the 7th century. (It alternates between three different destinations). Of a similar size to Arba’een, the Sabarimala pilgrimage (Kerala), Our Lady of Guadeloupe (Mexico), Amritsar (India) and Isa (Japan) each draw between 10 and 20 million pilgrims annually. All of these are each 5 to 10x bigger than the hajj.

Why do we hear more about the hajj? Possibly because, first of all, it’s one of the Five Pillars of Islam—a religious obligation for millions, drawing a global audience. Most of the world’s Hindus are in India, so most of the people going on Hindu pilgrimages are within the confines of India itself. But Islamic pilgrims come from all over the world. Further, the hajj draws people to Saudi Arabia, with its layers of political and economic intrigue—and at times, the hajj can introduce layers of diplomatic complexity. Finally, the event is held over a very short, concentrated period, and the logistical challenges of the event further draw attention.

Beyond these ‘mega-pilgrimages,’ there are several lesser-known religious pilgrimages on the same order of size as the hajj, each year drawing a few million people—like Thaipusam in Malaysia, Medjugorje (Bosnia), Lourdes (France), Fatima (Portugal), and Vishnu Devi (India). There are many smaller pilgrimage sites and journeys, too: Waisak in Indonesia and Lalibela in Ethiopia, for example, each draw 100,000 or so yearly.

The normalization of relations that the Saudis have been working on will make it possible for more people to come on the hajj. But at the same time, Saudi Arabia’s effort to draw tourists is having an unexpected result - Christians on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia (going to visit the alleged site of Mt. Sinai). What other ‘Christian’ pilgrimage sites are found throughout the world, and how are they related to big religious pilgrimages?

Pilgrimages are important from a missionary perspective because they are not locked off events. While many people go on pilgrimage for the social status or as a ‘bucket list’ event in their life, many are spiritually hungry. A pilgrimage can be a great place to find hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of people who come from all over the world to one location out of an expression of spirituality. Movements and other ministries have looked for and found ways to intersect these pilgrimages, find the hungry people, and introduce them to Jesus.

On a related note, it’s also helpful to remember that while the United States has been the main destination for international migrants since 1970, it has received only about 50 million migrants (out of 281 million total, represent nearly 4% of the world’s population) as of 2022. Also, only about 30 million of the global total—just a little over 10%—were refugees & asylum-seekers. The majority (169 million) were people seeking work. So if you want to intersect migrants or pilgrims, you may find it easiest to do that, especially among unreached peoples, in a non-Western country. (Many of the people groups that we consider unreached would not be granted a visa to the USA.) Aside from the USA, the top destinations for international migrants include Germany, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, the UAE, France, Canada, Australia, Spain, Italy and Turkey. If you’d like to consider this subject in exhaustive detail, I recommend the 2022 report from the International Office of Migration, both in downloadable PDF and online interactive forms.