Millions of Muslims gather on Arafat for peak hajj day

Gathering on Mount Arafat symbolises hajj’s climax

More than two million Muslims began massing Saturday on Saudi Arabia's Mount Arafat and its surrounding plain, marking the peak day of the largest annual pilgrimage.
Swarms of pilgrims who had spent the night in Mina, some 10 kilometres (six miles) northwest of Arafat, surged through the roads leading to the mountain after midnight.
"I am responding to your call, God," they chanted in unison.
Many went on buses, while others set off on foot from Mina, a tent-village that comes to life only during the five-day pilgrimage.
Others took the Mashair Railway, also known as the Mecca Metro, to go to Mount Arafat and its surrounding plains, where the Prophet of Islam Mohammed (PBUH) is believed to have delivered his final sermon.
The Chinese-built railway is operating for the first time this year at its full capacity of 72,000 people per hour to ease congestion and prevent stampedes in which hundreds have been killed in past years.
The dual-track light railway connects the three holy sites of Mina, Muzdalifah and Mount Arafat -- areas that see a massive influx of pilgrims during the hajj.
By sunrise, the Jabal al-Rahma peak -- or Mount of Mercy -- was covered by the white garments of pilgrims as they climbed to the high point and took up positions on slippery rocks to spend the day in prayer and reflection.
The gathering in the plains around Mount Arafat symbolises the climax of the hajj which ends on Sunday with Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be performed at least once in a lifetime by all those who are able to make the journey, and it is a dream that can take years to come true.
"I'm so happy to have set foot on Arafat's sacred soil," Indonesian pilgrim Noor Laila said.
"I want to wash away all my sins and ask God to forgive my mistakes. This is the first time I come to hajj and I hope it won't be the last," said the 36-year-old.
Another pilgrim, Malaysian Abdullah Wali al-Deen, 45, said he had been working for years for this day.
"I came here with my family after we managed to save enough money," he said.
"Everyone in here is equal. There are no differences between various nationalities. This is the religion of peace, love and brotherhood."
More than 1.83 million pilgrims have arrived in the kingdom from abroad, marking a 1.5% increase compared with last year, said Mecca governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal.
Several hundred thousand Saudis and foreign residents in the kingdom were also granted permits to join them, he added.
Coping with the world's largest annual human assembly poses a security headache for Saudi Arabia -- guardian of the two holiest Muslim shrines in the cities of Mecca and Medina, the birth places of Islam.
To help prevent chaos, the authorities have numbered buses and tents in Mina and Arafat according to the countries from which the pilgrims have come.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars over the years to avoid deadly stampedes that have marred the hajj in the past.
In January 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the entrance to a bridge leading to the stoning site in Mina, outside Mecca, while 251 were trampled to death in 2004.
In July 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were trampled to death or suffocated in a stampede in a tunnel, also in Mina.
The deaths prompted authorities to dismantle the old bridge and replace it with a multi-level walkway with one-way lanes to ensure a smooth flow of pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia also launched a new $10.6-billion project for a new extension to Mecca's Grand Mosque to increase its capacity to two million worshippers.
No incidents were reported this year.
"Things are going well and according to (the government's) plans," interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said.
For the first time this year, the hajj is being streamed live on video-sharing website YouTube in cooperation with the Saudi government.
"Millions of people from around the world will be able to experience and comment on the event by tuning in via video," YouTube said in a blog.
The stream can bee seen at youtube.com/hajjlive.