Hajj at high point a year after deadly stampede

Mount Arafat - The hajj reached its high point on Sunday when Muslims from across the world converged on a stony hill in Saudi Arabia, a year after the worst tragedy in the pilgrimage's history.

More than 1.8 million gathered from sunrise at the hill and a vast surrounding plain known as Mount Arafat, about 15km from Mecca.

They are spending the most important day of the annual hajj in prayer and reading from the Qur'an. 

Arafat is the site where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon about 14 centuries ago after leading his followers on the pilgrimage.

    An Indonesian father carries his daughter after reaching Mountain of Mercy. (Nariman El-Mofty, AP)

"I have the impression of standing exactly in front of God, said Khadem Ndyaye, 47, of Senegal.

"Muslims came here from everywhere and we are all the same. If all the world was like that, there wouldn't be any war. Here, we feel that Islam is a religion of peace."

Indian pilgrim Mohammed Arafan, 40, said he feels "chosen by God" for being able to perform the hajj.

"It's beautiful to see the Muslims of the world pray together here."

   Muslim pilgrims join one of the hajj rituals on Mount Arafat. (Ahmad Gharabli, AFP)

At midday prayer hundreds of thousands prostrated themselves, men and women side-by-side, in wide alleys that run between prefabricated pilgrim lodgings.

For the first time in years, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh did not give his traditional Arafat sermon.

Okaz newspaper cited health reasons, but Sheikh still attended the sermon given in his place by Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque.

Under multicoloured parasols to protect against the burning sun, the mass of people move through broad streets which are closed to traffic around Mount Arafat.

Throughout the day the faithful chant a traditional hajj incantation, "God, here I am."

From a distance, the hill appeared a snowy white from the seamless two-piece white garment, ihram, worn by male pilgrims.

They come from every corner of the globe, but Indonesia - the most populous Muslim nation - has the largest contingent.

Safety measures 

In stifling heat, trucks loaded with bottled water were stationed throughout, and pilgrims doused themselves.

Empty bottles and leftover meals littered the ground as ambulances patrolled.

    Muslim pilgrims sign their names on a white pillar during the annual hajj. (Nariman El-Mofty, AP)

After sunset they will move to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, to gather 49 pebbles for a symbolic stoning of the devil which begins on Monday, in the last major rite of hajj.

During that ritual in Mina last year a stampede killed roughly 2 300 people who were on their way to throw their stones at the Jamarat Bridge.

Saudi Arabia issued a death toll of 769, but figures compiled from foreign officials in more than 30 countries gave a tally almost three times higher.

Authorities announced an investigation into the tragedy but no results have ever been released, although a number of safety measures have been taken.

Among these is the distribution of a bracelet which stores pilgrims' personal data. Roads have also been widened in the Jamarat area, newspapers reported.

Pilgrims have told AFP they feel safe and noticed organisational improvements.

No Iranians 

On Sunday, helicopters monitored the crowd flow from the skies, while on the ground, police on foot, motorbike, and all-terrain vehicles directed pedestrian movement.

At the sacred hill itself, police sometimes had to use their bodies to block the flow of pilgrims and avoid bottlenecks.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister and chair of the hajj committee, was in Mina to help supervise "the services being provided to the pilgrims," the official Saudi Press Agency said.

Despite the safety and security measures which Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia says it has taken, Shi'ite Iran has angrily questioned the kingdom's custodianship of Islam's holiest places.

Iran last year reported the largest number of stampede victims, at 464, and its 64 000 pilgrims are excluded for the first time in decades after the regional rivals failed to agree on security and logistics.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranian faithful held an alternative pilgrimage on Saturday in the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Karbala, according to an official at the shrine of Imam Hussein.

Saudi Arabia on Sunday said it launched a television channel to broadcast the hajj rituals in the Persian language, also known as Farsi, spoken in Iran.

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