HAJ-PILGRIMAGE

DECEMBER 18 2007 15:15h

PHOTO: Muslim Pilgrims Mass at Peak of Haj

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Many prayed for forgiveness and the welfare of Muslims across the world but for many others it was enough just to be there.

Millions of Muslim pilgrims spent the afternoon on the plain of Arafat east of Mecca on Tuesday at the peak of the annual haj pilgrimage.

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Many prayed for forgiveness and the welfare of Muslims across the world but for many others it was enough just to be there -- part of a global community born in Arabia 1,400 years ago and united in belief in one transcendent God.

Saudi authorities say more than 1.6 million people have entered Saudi Arabia for the event, the largest religious gathering in the world and a huge logistical and security challenge for the Saudi authorities.

With pilgrims from within the country, both Saudis and foreign workers, the total would be well over 2 million. Some Saudi newspapers said 3 million people were expected.

The pilgrims, dressed in special white robes, jostled for space in the narrow confines of the area where they must spend the afternoon, preferably in reading and prayer to God.

But Muslim scholars say that being on the plain at the required time is enough to validate the pilgrim's haj.

Some pilgrims slept in tents, picnicked wherever they could find the space to lay their mats or just chatted with friends.

Physical conditions were gruelling, with the crowds, the sun and the heat, the rapidly accumulating rubbish and the long queues for access to some facilities.

SPACE ON THE TARMAC

Water sprays raised on posts across the plain provided a thin mist and some relief from the midday heat.

But pilgrims said the clamour did not bother them. Some said they welcomed the crowding as a sign of Muslim solidarity.

"The conditions are fine. This event brings us together from all countries in the world," said Nagat Ahmed, an Egyptian woman pilgrim from the Nile Delta province of Dakahlia.

Asghari Saba Ansari, from Crawford Market near the Indian capital Delhi, said her family had found space on the tarmac, between a parked bus and a large four-wheel-drive vehicle.Women are not allowed to take part in the haj during their menstruation, so many take hormones to postpone it. Religious scholars say this is allowed.

"We have been here for three hours now and everybody is cooperating. No one has troubled us. We have been praying for forgiveness for any mistakes we have made, for a better life and the good of all Muslims," she said.

The area, about 15 km (10 miles) east of Mecca, is where the prophet Mohammad gave a famed sermon in the year 632, the year of his death. Legend also links it with Adam and Eve.

So far the Saudi authorities have reported none of the problems or disasters which have marred the haj in previous years -- such as fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protestors and deadly stampedes caused by overcrowding.

"DEATH TO AMERICA"

But a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei managed to give a speech to a group of Iranian pilgrims at Arafat on Tuesday denouncing "enemies of the Muslim nation".

Shown on Iranian TV, pilgrims waved signs saying "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" and chanted slogans. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is performing haj this year at the invitation of Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's state-appointed religious authority, prayed in a sermon before hundreds of thousands for the prosperity of Muslims and Saudi Arabia's rulers, and condemned Islamist militants.

"O Muslims, reject this terrorism, and young people should be careful not to become a means for ruining your countries and your people," he said in the traditional televised speech.

Some of the most enthusiastic pilgrims had spent the night on Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal al-Rahma or the Mountain of Mercy, nestling in cracks between the boulders. The night air was pleasantly cool, with a breeze from the desert.

Zaki Ali Ibrahim, an Egyptian driver working in Saudi Arabia, said he spent the whole night in prayer with friends.

"I prayed that all Muslims may prosper, and that I may prosper with them," he said. "I felt that my prayers for Muslims were reaching God with strength."

A large group chanted prayers in unison, asking God to help fellow Muslims in areas of conflict including the Palestinian territories, Chechnya, Kashmir and Sudan.