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Saudi Arabia: Pilgrims Gathering On Mount Arafat For Hajj's Central Rite

Mountain of Lights, outside Mecca (AFP) More than 2 million Muslim pilgrims taking part in the hajj in Saudi Arabia are heading to the Plain of Arafat today, the ninth day of the month of Zul-Hijjah, to perform the central rite of the annual pilgrimage.

Prague, 9 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- At sunrise today, some 2.5 million Muslims began moving toward Mount Arafat to perform the second day ritual that is the climax of the annual pilgrimage.

"We're going to Arafat, and this is a day that everyone hopes for," a female pilgrim from Tunisia said. "We are in a dream!"

She is one of many going to Mount Arafat on foot. Some pilgrims are traveling in vehicles. They're retracing a journey made by the Prophet Muhammad more than 1,400 years ago.

On a plain some 250 meters above sea level, surrounded by mountains on all sides, the Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon. There, many also believe, Adam and Eve reunited after they were banished by God from Paradise. The Prophet Muhammad ordered that all Muslims must journey there in an orderly and peaceful manner, to assemble by noon.

The rite of wukuf, or standing on Mount Arafat before sunset, is the focal point of the hajj. Without it, the pilgrimage would not be considered complete.

Wukuf is an emotional time for Muslims. "The day of Mount Arafat will, God willing, be the happiest day for Muslims because God tells his angel, 'Bear witness that my children have come to me and that I have forgiven them,'" Ashraf Youssef, a pilgrim from Egypt, said.

Millions of pilgrims pray for mercy and forgiveness, meditate, and hear sermons, according to the command of the Prophet.

They are also praying for 76 fellow pilgrims who died on 5 January after the collapse of an aging hostel near the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Saudi authorities have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the accident. The collapse reportedly occurred due to the negligence of the hostel owner, who was housing more pilgrims than the building was designed for.

The Saudi Interior Ministry says more than 1.5 million foreign pilgrims of 177 nationalities are taking part in the hajj this year. That's up 1.2 percent from last year.

"This does not include Saudis, foreigners living in Saudi [Arabia], and pilgrims coming on their own outside the tours," Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansur al-Turki said on 8 January, suggesting that an overall estimate of 2.5 million may be close.

Medical centers and other facilities have been set up at Mount Arafat and the tent city of Mina to provide comfort to the pilgrims. Some 60,000 security, health, emergency, and other personnel are involved in organizing this year’s hajj. In addition, 14 hospitals and dozens of clinics and field facilities are standing by to deal with any contingency.

Saudi authorities have been on high alert following cases of bird flu in Turkey. They tightened the screening of pilgrims at ports and airports and also banned imported poultry. Almost $7 million was spent stocking up on Tamiflu, considered the most effective defense against H5N1, the strain of bird flu dangerous to humans.

The pilgrims stay in the Plain of Arafat until sunset today. Then they will leave for the sacred site of Muzdalifah for an overnight stay. Each pilgrim collects seven pebbles on the slopes of a hill there and uses them for tomorrow's (10 January) ritual stoning of the three pillars of jamaraat, which symbolize the devil. It's considered one of the most dangerous points of the hajj. Saudi authorities have made a number of improvements to the site in an effort to minimize the crush of pilgrims.

The pilgrims then return to Mina to prepare for the beginning of the holiday known as Eid Al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice. Sheep and other animals are sacrificed to Allah.

Haytham Kazim, an Iraqi pilgrim from Baghdad, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq: "It is a pleasant feeling to perform the rituals of the hajj. God has enjoined to us this worship. We abide with it, and we will complete it in the correct way, God willing, so that we come closer to the face of Almighty God."

Every able-bodied Muslim with sufficient financial means is obliged to undertake the hajj at least once in his or her lifetime.

The Hajj

The Hajj

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THE HAJJ: Every year, Islamic pilgrims converge on the Saudi holy city of Mecca for what is considered to be the world's largest single gathering of human beings -- the annual hajj pilgrimage, the fifth and final pillar of Islam. Hajj literally means "to set out for a place," and every able-bodied Muslim with the means to do so is expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, traditionally after first settling all their wordly affairs...(more)