MECCA: Seeking forgiveness from Allah and praying for an end to disputes and bloodshed, nearly two million Muslim pilgrims ascended Mount Arafat, east of the holy city of Makkah, Monday in the climax of hajj after spending a night of meditation and introspection in the tent city of Mina.
Helicopters hovered overhead and thousands of troops stood guard to organise roads flooded with men, women and children.
Chanting Labaik Allahum Labaik (Here I am answering Your call, O God), many of them camped in small colourful tents and took shelter under trees to escape temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius. Special sprinklers were set up to help cool the pilgrims.
Pilgrims flocked to `Arafat, also known as Mount of Mercy, from early morning, after spending a night in Mina which marked the first leg of their five-day spiritual journey.
Following the lead of the Prophets Sunnah, the pilgrims performed noon and afternoon prayer Zuhr and Asr combined and shortened at the Namera Mosque.
Pilgrims spend the day on `Arafat in the most essential pillar of hajj.
For the rest of the day, the pilgrims supplicate to God to forgive their sins and grant them mercy, and pray for fellow Muslims, and for unity and peace around the world.
Pilgrims then will descend by train back to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they will take part in the symbolic stoning of the devil at Jamrat Al-Aqaba and spend the night.
On Tuesday, all pilgrims head back to Mina, where they sacrifice animals to mark the beginning of the four-day `Eid Al-Adha.
Attendance is sharply down from last year, due to fears linked to the MERS virus and to multi-billion-dollar expansion work at the Grand Mosque to almost double its capacity to around 2.2 million worshippers.
Governor of Makkah province and head of the central hajj committee Prince Khaled al-Faisal said 1.38 million pilgrims had arrived from outside of the kingdom while ony 117,000 hajj permits were issued for domestic pilgrims.
This puts the total number of pilgrims this year at almost 1.5 million, less than half of last years 3.2 million, after Riyadh slashed hajj quotas.
Prince Khaled told the official SPA news agency late Sunday that authorities had turned back 70,000 nationals and expatriates for not carrying legal permits and had arrested 38,000 others for performing the hajj without a permit.
Authorities have also seized as many as 138,000 vehicles for violating the hajj rules, and owners will be penalised, the prince said.
Saudi health authorities have stressed that no cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus have been detected so far this pilgrimage. The disease has killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia.
The pilgrims arrived at Arafat from nearby Mina where most of them spent the night following the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, who performed the rituals 14 centuries ago.
They had moved to Mina on Sunday from the holy city of Makkah, home to the Grand Mosque, Islams holiest place of worship, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba towards which all Muslims pray five times daily.
On reaching Arafat, they crowded onto the hill and the vast plain surrounding it to pray until sunset, when they are due to set off for Muzdalifah for a ritual on Monday symbolising the stoning of the devil.
I will pray the whole day for God to improve the situation for Muslims worldwide and an end to disputes and bloodshed in Arab countries, 61-year-old Algerian pensioner Saeed Dherari said.
I hope that God will grace all Muslims with security and stability, said 75-year-old Ahmad Khader, who hails from the southern Syrian province of Daraa.
Egyptian Ahmad Ali, who is performing hajj for the first time, prayed for peace after hundreds were killed in recent months in fighting between security forces and Islamist supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
I pray for Egypt to enjoy security and stability and for the people to reach understanding and reconciliation, Ali said.
The hajj, which officially ends on Friday, is one of the five pillars of Islam that every capable Muslim must perform at least once.
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