MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia, (Agencies) – More than 2 million elated Muslim pilgrims crowded onto holy Mount Arafat near Mecca on Friday, praying for Muslims around the world and hoping for a safe hajj.
Muslims believe God is more likely to answer their prayers if they are made within the sacred zone on the mountain plain, the site of Prophet Mohammad’s last sermon 1,400 years ago.
Wearing simple white robes to symbolise equality and selflessness, many trekked at dawn to the rocky outcrop, known as Jebel al-Rahma (Mount Mercy).
“Whenever I stand on Jebel al-Rahma I feel reborn,” said Ruquia Manouzi, a Moroccan woman.
Mohamado Thiam, a telecoms engineer from Senegal, said pilgrims are praying for Muslims in hotspots around the world. “I’m very happy, look how our nation is expanding,” he said. “But we have to pray for our brethren in Iraq, in Palestine, in Sudan. There are people dying there.”
In one of the world’s biggest displays of mass religious devotion, pilgrims spend five days following a route around the mountains of the ancient city of Mecca.
The ritual is a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to make the trip.
With such large crowds, Saudi Arabia deploys more than 50,000 security men to try to avoid deadly stampedes, as well as attacks by Islamists.
Security fears are heightened this year because of concerns over ongoing sectarian strife between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims around the region.
A record 1.65 million pilgrims have come from abroad, a 6 percent rise on the last hajj. Several hundred thousand people inside Saudi Arabia usually receive permits too.
The authorities say they will crack down hard on Muslims who try to sneak into Mecca without official permits — a phenomenon that can swell numbers by 500,000 to more than 2.5 million.
Saturday, Sunday and Monday — the last three days of the haj — will be the key test of new arrangements at the symbolic stoning of the devil, the most incident-prone haj ritual.
In January, 362 pilgrims were crushed to death due to overcrowding at the Jamarat Bridge.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif has said improvements introduced this year would prevent crushes at the bridge.