MOUNT ARAFAT Vast crowds of Muslim pilgrims flocked to Mount Arafat on Thursday to perform the main Haj rites, with those from Arab Spring states praying fervently for freedom and stability.
Men, women, and children from 189 countries streamed from dawn to the site in western Arabia, some setting up small colourful tents in which they slept and prayed.
Beggars and street vendors also dotted the roads searching for generous souls among the 2.5 million believers expected to converge on the plain for the most important rituals of the five-day hajj.
According to Makkah governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal, around 1.7 million people had travelled from abroad for the pilgrimage, many of them from Middle Eastern countries which have been shaken by Arab Spring uprisings.
The region was hit by a wave of uprisings that began in 2010 toppling autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In Bahrain US backed monarchy has brutally crushed the uprising but in Syria rebellion backed by the West has degenerated into a bloody civil war.
For Mai, a 34-year-old Egyptian, the Haj is a gift from God that she will use to pray for victory and peace in Egypt and all Muslim countries, she said.
Others who descended on the plain from early morning focused on the religious significance of the day.
We came from Makkah. We walked from the Grand Mosque to Mina and then we took the buses to Arafat. All for the love of the prophet, said one Egyptian man sitting on a straw mat with members of his family.
The more tired we get, the more God will reward us, he said.
Focus of the rituals is the Mount of Mercy where Prophet Mohammed (Peace be up on him) is believed to have delivered his final Haj sermon before his death.
Many pilgrims made themselves comfortable between the huge rocks, tears streaming down their faces as they prayed.
A preacher urged pilgrims not to climb the slippery stone staircase leading up the hill, bellowing over loudspeakers: Neither the prophet, nor his followers have ever climbed the hill. Please do not climb it.
Pilgrims have in previous years slipped and fallen while attempting the ascent, and others have been killed in stampedes.
After sunset, the pilgrims headed to Muzdalifah, between Mina and Arafat, where they collect stones to throw at the devil, one of the last rituals which takes place Friday and marks the first day of Eid al-Azha, the feast of sacrifice.
The symbolic stoning of the devil is followed by the ritual sacrifice of an animal, usually a lamb.
During the remaining three days of the Haj, the pilgrims continue the stoning ritual before performing the circumambulation of the Kaaba shrine in Makkah and heading home.
The Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam that every capable Muslim must perform at least once.
More than 100,000 members of the security and civil defence forces have been deployed to ensure the safety of the pilgrims, while some 3,000 CCTV cameras have been installed across Haj sites.
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