Muslim pilgrims begin hajj peak day at Arafat

Saudi Interior Minister puts number of pilgrims from abroad at 1.8 million.

Arafat: More than two million Muslim pilgrims began on Monday to assemble on Mount Arafat and in its surrounding plain on the peak day of the hajj, the world`s largest annual pilgrimage.

By 5:00 am (0200 GMT) tens of thousands of pilgrims had already set off from their camps in the valley of Mina, some 10 kilometres (six miles) northwest of Arafat. Many performed their dawn prayers in Namira mosque or on the road.

Most of the remaining pilgrims are to be shuttled by buses by noon.

The gathering in the plain of Arafat symbolises the climax of the hajj pilgrimage which began on Sunday with more than two million pilgrims flowing from the neighbouring Muslim holy city of Mecca, or directly, into Mina -- a tent city that comes to life only during the five-day yearly pilgrimage.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz on Sunday put the number of pilgrims from abroad at a record 1.8 million, while some 200,000 permits had been given to local pilgrims, including Saudis and pilgrims from Gulf states.

But tens of thousands of unauthorised pilgrims had by Sunday poured into the valley, skirting their way around highway checkpoints trying to strictly enforce a rule of "No permit, No hajj".

Many of those illegal pilgrims had already made their way to the plain of Arafat at night in preparation for the solemn ritual.

By sunrise, the Jabal al-Rahma, or the Mount of Mercy -- the highest point in Arafat, became mostly covered in white as pilgrims dressed in white garments climbed to the top to take up positions on the hills` slippery rocks and spend the day in prayers and reflection.

The majority of pilgrims stay in the plain.

The granite hill, rising some 60 metres (yards) from the plain with no more than 200 metres length and a similar width, is topped with a four-metre pillar, said to represent the spot where the prophet of Islam, Mohammed, delivered his final hajj sermon.

Pilgrims vied to touch the white cement structure, some crying, although the structure, which has turned dark at its lower part through human contact, is not meant to have a religious significance.

Saudi Arabia`s religious police recently stirred a debate in the ultra-conservative kingdom after calling for the removal of the pillar, known as Shakhess, to eliminate a behaviour seen as idolatrous.

After sunset, pilgrims move to Muzdalifah, half-way between Mount Arafat and Mina, to spend the night.

On Tuesday, they return to Mina after dawn prayers for the first stage of the symbolic "stoning of the devil" and to make the ritual sacrifice of an animal, usually a lamb.

On the remaining three days of the hajj, the pilgrims continue the ritual stoning before performing the circumambulation of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca and then heading home.

This year`s hajj has been incident-free since the pilgrims began gathering in Mecca. The city`s Grand Mosque has been flooded with the faithful, with an estimated 1.7 million taking part in the main weekly Muslim prayers on Friday.

On Wednesday, the interior minister said he could not rule out the possibility of an al Qaeda attack, but on Sunday Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said it was against targeting the hajj.

"We assure our Islamic nation that we are against any criminal action aimed at the pilgrims," it said in an online statement.

Bureau Report