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Human sea on Mount Arafat as haj pilgrims assemble

A human tide washed over Mount Arafat on Sunday as hundreds of thousands of devoted Muslims celebrated the key events of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

world Updated: Dec 07, 2008 19:15 IST

A human tide washed over Mount Arafat on Sunday as hundreds of thousands of devoted Muslims celebrated the key events of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Starting just after dawn, the faithful made their way slowly on foot or by bus onto the hill, also known as the Mount of Mercy, where prophet Mohammed delivered his last sermon more than 14 centuries ago.

So far no major problems have developed, organisers said, although a record number of pilgrims have come from outside Saudi Arabia and media say the total number of participants may reach three million.

A highlight came in the middle of the day, when pilgrims joined in collective prayers at the Namera mosque, built on the site where Mohammed prayed while making the pilgrimage

In a sermon before midday prayers at the mosque, Saudi grand mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh said the global financial crisis stems from ignoring God's rules and allowing "riba" or usury, prohibited in Islam.

"Today we watch as this financial crisis enfolds and some companies and banks go bankrupt. This is the result of ignoring God's rules. Muslims must abide by God's rules, and build their economies accordingly," Sheikh told the faithful.

Banks operating under Islamic Sharia rules avoid charging interest on loans, seen as usury by many Muslims. Instead they preferred shared ownership and splitting of profits.

Sheikh also called for the Muslim world to unite in the face of terrorism to preserve stability.

"The world must criminalize terrorism... we must be cautious of terrorism and fight hostile criminal gangs that destroy countries and people," he said.

Pilgrims were scheduled to spend the rest of their day on Mount Arafat praying and beseeching God for his forgiveness, as a symbol of the wait for judgement day.

"This is a day of great joy," one man said before breaking down in tears on his arrival at Arafat, overwhelmed with happiness on taking part in the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam which the Koran says Muslims must carry out at least once in their lives if they are well enough and can afford it.

Just as emotional, Suad Dasuqi, a 50 year-old Egyptian woman, called for "the victory of Islam and a tightening of the ranks of Muslims," praising the hajj for uniting the faithful of different races and colours, and from all continents.

As part of the annual ritual, the faithful stay on Mount Ararat until sunset, when they move to the valley of Muzdalifah, a few kilometres away, where they gather pebbles and small stones in preparation for Monday's stoning of pillars that symbolize Satan.

On Monday they will go to Mina and sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep, to recall Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son on God's order. This ceremony marks the start of the Eid al-Adha feast.

They will spend another two days in Mina for the stoning of Satan, the last and most dangerous rite, which has left many people dead in previous years after stampedes broke out.

The authorities have built bridges at three different levels on the site in a bid to avoid the trampling that caused the death of 364 people in 2006, 251 in 2004 and 1,426 in 1990.

So far this year "no incident has been recorded," according to Prince Khaled al-Faisal bin Abdel Aziz, the governor of Mecca.

The Saudi interior ministry has assembled 100,000 stewards to ensure safety during the hajj and the health ministry has supplied 11,000 of its medical and paramedical staff along with 140 first aid points and 24 field hospitals containing a total of 4,000 beds.

The ministry said on Saturday that 1,728,841 pilgrims from abroad, the highest ever number, had entered the kingdom. They joined the hundreds of thousands of Saudi citizens and other residents participating this year.

First Published: Dec 07, 2008 19:07 IST