Complete article:ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — A human tide circled Mount Arafat on Sunday as hundreds of thousands of devoted Muslims celebrated the high point of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Starting just after dawn, the faithful made their way slowly on foot or by bus toward the hill, also known as the Mount of Mercy, where prophet Mohammed delivered his last sermon more than 14 centuries ago.
So far no major incidents have been reported, organisers said, although a record number of pilgrims have travelled to the holy sites in western Saudi Arabia from abroad and media say the total number of participants may reach three million.
A highlight came in the middle of the day, when pilgrims joined in collective prayers at the Namera mosque, built on the site where Mohammed prayed while making the pilgrimage.
In a sermon before midday prayers at the mosque, Saudi Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh said the global financial crisis stems from ignoring God's rules and allowing "riba" or usury, prohibited in Islam.
"Today we watch as this financial crisis enfolds and some companies and banks go bankrupt. This is the result of ignoring God's rules. Muslims must abide by God's rules, and build their economies accordingly," he told the faithful.
Sheikh also called for the Muslim world to unite in the face of terrorism to preserve stability. "We must be cautious of terrorism and fight hostile criminal gangs that destroy countries and people," he said.
Pilgrims, most of them wearing a white seamless cloth, were scheduled to spend the rest of their day on Mount Arafat praying and beseeching God for his forgiveness, as a symbol of the wait for judgement day.
"This is a day of great joy," one man said before breaking down in tears on his arrival at Arafat, overwhelmed with joy on taking part in the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam which the Koran says Muslims must carry out at least once in their lives if they are well enough and can afford it.
Suad Dasuqi, a 50 year-old Egyptian woman, called for "a tightening of the ranks of Muslims," praising the hajj for uniting the faithful of different races and colours, and from all continents.
Saudi authorities set up poles on the streets that sprayed a light misty rain on pilgrims to ease the heat.
As part of the annual ritual, the faithful stayed on Mount Ararat until sunset, when they moved to the valley of Muzdalifah, a few kilometres (miles) away, where they were to gather pebbles and small stones in preparation for Monday's stoning of pillars that symbolize Satan.
On Monday, they will go to Mina and sacrifice an animal, usually a sheep, to recall Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son on God's order. This ceremony marks the start of the Eid al-Adha feast.
They will spend another two days in Mina for the stoning of Satan, the last and most dangerous rite, which has left many people dead in previous years after stampedes broke out, before returning to nearby Mecca.
The authorities have built bridges at three different levels on the stoning site in a bid to avoid the trampling that caused the death of 364 people in 2006, 251 in 2004 and 1,426 in 1990.
The interior ministry has assembled 100,000 stewards to ensure safety during the hajj and the health ministry has supplied 11,000 of its medical and paramedical staff along with 140 first aid points and 24 field hospitals containing a total of 4,000 beds.
The ministry said on Saturday that 1,728,841 pilgrims from abroad, the highest ever number, had entered the kingdom. They joined the hundreds of thousands of Saudi citizens and other residents participating this year.
Civil defence general chief Saad bin Abdullah al-Tuweigry said 208 water pumps had been set up at the Muzdalifa site to put out any fire and an emergency shelter installed.
As is the custom, the huge ornate cloth with gold-coated silver thread that covers the Kaaba stone at the centre of Mecca's Grand Mosque was changed on Sunday at an estimated 5.5 million dollars, the state news agency SPA said.