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Almost 500 Druze clergymen living in the Golan Heights crossed into Syria on Thursday for an annual pilgrimage to a holy shrine in the Syrian countryside.

The 488 clerics walked 300 meters from the Israeli lines to a Syrian checkpoint at Quneitra, some 65 kilometers south of Damascus, where they received a warm welcome from waiting crowds.

"I'm overjoyed to be in Syria to see my relatives," said Sheik Suleiman Abu Jabal, 58, a Druze cleric from Mas'ada village who was among the group making the three-day trip.

The visit is "very important for keeping in contact with our relatives in the Golan," said Medhat Saleh, a former Syrian lawmaker waiting for the clergymen.

Some 17,000 followers of the Druze religion - an offshoot of Islam - live on the Israeli side of the Golan along with 15,000 Israelis. Nearly all the Druze have rejected Israeli citizenship and retain strong feelings toward Syria, which provides them with free university education.

But since 1988, Israeli authorities have allowed Druze to perform the pilgrimage to the Habil shrine at Zabadani, 45 kilometers west of Damascus.

Habil is the Arabic name for Abel, Cain's brother. The two sons of Adam and Eve are mentioned, though not by these names, in the Quran, Islam's holy book, which tells the well-known biblical story of the first murder.

Irenee Herbet, the communications and field officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the clergymen's crossing went smoothly, adding Israel's permission for the group to stay in Syria for three days was "a positive signal."