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Millions of Muslims gather on Mount Arafat for peak Haj day

(AFP) / 5 November 2011

More than two million Muslims gathered on Saturday on Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat and its surrounding plain, marking the peak day of the Haj, the world’s largest annual pilgrimage.

Dressed in white garments, the pilgrims filled the Namera Mosque in Arafat and the nearby streets and camps for collective prayer, led by Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh.

“Islam is the solution for the problems” of Muslims, he said in a speech before the prayer began, warning the faithful of “a media and cultural invasion that seeks to weaken (their) faith.”

He urged Muslims to solve their problems “without interference from their enemies,” condemning those who want to “provoke hostility between you and your leaders.”

There were no immediate reports of major incidents as security officials focused on crowd control.

“Things are going well and according to plans,” interior ministry spokesman General Mansur Al Turki said.

Many went on buses, while others set off on foot from Mina, a tent-village that comes to life only during the five-day pilgrimage.

Others took the Mashair Railway, also known as the Mecca Metro, to go to Mount Arafat and its surrounding plains, where Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is believed to have delivered his final sermon.

The Chinese-built railway is operating for the first time this year at its full capacity of 72,000 people per hour to ease congestion and prevent stampedes in which hundreds have been killed in past years.

The dual-track light railway connects the three holy sites of Mina, Muzdalifah and Mount Arafat — areas that see a massive influx of pilgrims during the hajj.

After sunset, pilgrims move to Muzdalifah, half way between Mount Arafat and Mina, to spend the night.

On Sunday, they return to Mina after dawn prayers for the first stage of the symbolic “stoning of the devil” and to make the ritual sacrifice of an animal, usually a lamb with the beginning of Eid Al Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice.

On the remaining three days of the haj, the pilgrims continue the ritual stoning before performing the circumambulation of the Holy Kaaba  in the Holy city of Makkah and then heading home.

However, the gathering in the plains around Mount Arafat symbolises the climax of the Haj.

The Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be performed at least once in a lifetime by all those who are able to make the journey, and it is a dream that can take years to come true.

Mukhtar Al Rahman, who is more than 100 years of age, said that “this is the dream of my life which took a century to come true.”

“The crowds have tired me and as you can see I can’t stand properly because of the huge crowds flooding” into the area, the elderly Bengali said panting as he looked for a small chair to sit on.

Meanwhile, Indonesian Noor Laila said: “I’m so happy to have set foot on Arafat’s sacred soil.”

“I want to wash away all my sins and ask God to forgive my mistakes. This is the first time I come to Haj and I hope it won’t be the last,” said the 36-year-old.

Malaysian Abdullah Wali Al Deen, 45, said he had been working for years for this day.

“I came here with my family after we managed to save enough money,” he said.

“Everyone in here is equal. There are no differences between various nationalities. This is the religion of peace, love and brotherhood.”

More than 1.83 million pilgrims have arrived in the kingdom from abroad, marking a 1.5 per cent increase from last year, said Mecca governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal.

Several hundred thousand Saudis and foreign residents in the kingdom were also granted permits to join them, he added.

For the first time this year, the Haj is being streamed live on video-sharing website YouTube in cooperation with the Saudi government.

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