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Muslims Pilgrims Get Respite From Rain At Arafat

Muslim pilgrims gather at Mount Arafat, southeast of the city of Mecca, on November 26.
ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) -- Bright weather greeted some 2 million Muslims who rallied around Mount Arafat, where Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon, to beg for God's forgiveness today at the peak of the hajj.

The death toll from heavy rainfalls that hit the port city of Jeddah, gateway for pilgrims to Mecca, rose to 48 people, most of whom were swept away by strong currents or drowned.

In Mecca, pilgrims flocked mostly by foot to Arafat to pray until sunset. They set up tents on a plain, squatted on the side of the road in shelters, or stayed at the nearby Namira Mosque.

The pilgrims will later move to Muzdalifa to collect pebbles to stone a set of walls. The ritual represents defiance of the devil and commitment to resisting temptation.

"God gave us a reprieve from the rainfalls on the most important day of hajj. It shows His immense clemency," Indonesian pilgrim Abdulwadood Asegaf said.

"We are going to avoid going up the mount Arafat this time because it is too muddy," he added.

About 1.6 million pilgrims have come from abroad for the hajj, the world's largest regular religious gathering and a duty for all Muslims to perform at least once if possible.

The November 25 rainfalls, the heaviest the desert country has seen in years, prevented thousands of people from getting to Mecca from Jeddah but caused no deaths among pilgrims, Saudi hajj organizers say.

"The rain was a blessing from God. We are now going to pray to beg for God's forgiveness and mercy, for the good of our children and of all Muslims," said Egyptian pilgrim Nasser Abu Ahmed.

Nigerian businessman Mustafa Abu Bakr said Muslims from different parts of the world and of differents walks of life renew their allegiance to God in Arafat.

"We will pray for world peace," he said.

The hajj marks sites that Islamic tradition says Prophet Ibrahim -- biblical patriarch Abraham -- visited in Mecca and that Prophet Muhammad established as a pilgrim route 14 centuries ago after he removing pagan idols from Mecca.

Islam is now embraced by one-quarter of the world's population.

Apart from floods in Jeddah, authorities have reported none of the problems or disasters that have marred the hajj in previous years such as fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protesters, and deadly stampedes caused by overcrowding.

Saudi authorities have made renovations over the past year to ease the flow of pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque and the disaster-prone Jamarat Bridge. In January 2006, 362 people were crushed to death in the worst hajj tragedy in 16 years.