MOUNT ARAFAT: Muslim pilgrims pray on Jabal Al-Rahma (Mount of Mercy) at Mount Arafat southeast of the holy city of Makkah during the climax of the hajj pilgrimage yesterday. – AFP

MOUNT ARAFAT: Nearly 2.5 million Muslim hajj pilgrims converged on Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia yesterday to atone for their sins and seek God’s forgiveness, marshalled by tens of thousands of stewards in a bid to prevent any repetition of previous years’ deadly stampedes. Movable crowd control barriers were erected all around the foot of the rocky hill outside Makkah, also known as Jabal Al-Rahma or Mount of Mercy, where the faithful arrived on foot and in a seemingly endless line of buses. Raising their palms skywards, the pilgrims set off on the climb to the summit where they held prayers to atone for their sins in a ritual that is regarded as the high point of the annual hajj.

“Really, I am very satisfied,” said Lassina Coulibaly, a 47-year-old Malian business employee. “Fatigue is part of the pilgrimage,” added the father of seven. Clutching brightly colored umbrellas, pilgrims first braved the blazing sun and then heavy downpours that many welcomed as a blessing. Some burst into tears as they chanted prayers. Thousands of faithful had spent the night under the stars, sleeping on prayer rugs or pieces of cardboard.

Trucks were parked at regular intervals on the route leading up to the hill, distributing bottles of water and meals. Thousands of workers prepared to clear the rubbish that littered the ground. Helicopters crisscrossed overhead, part of the tight security precautions taken by the pilgrimage’s Saudi hosts. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam which every Muslim is required to complete at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so.

HH the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah extended greetings to citizens and expatriates on the advent of Eid Al-Adha, a statement by the Amiri Diwan said Friday. The Diwan added HH the Amir extended similar greetings to Arab and Islamic nations, wishing those countries and Kuwait evermore progress and prosperity. HH the Amir yesterday exchanged cables of congratulations with Arab and Muslim leaders on the occasion of Eid Al-Adha. The Amir addressed heartfelt and sincere greetings to the leaders, wishing all Arab and Muslim countries perpetual security, stability and prosperity.

“I came last year during Ramadan, now I am there for the hajj,” said Indonesian pilgrim Zakir Uddin. “It is an honor, praise be to God,” added the 27-year-old cook. Like other male pilgrims, he wears a seamless white garment that covers only one shoulder and emphasizes unity regardless of social status or nationality. The women wear loose dresses, most of them white, exposing only their faces and hands. They are designed to help pilgrims enter a state of purity, called ihram. Uddin, who works in the Saudi city of Jeddah less than 90 km from Makkah, says he is happy to see so many of his compatriots among the pilgrims. “Indonesians make up the single largest contingent, such is the will of God,” he said.

Once on the hill, pilgrims sat or lay in whatever space they could find. Many prayed, some cried and others took selfies or streamed videos to friends and relatives back home. Zaid Abdullah, a 30-year-old Yemeni who works in a supermarket in Saudi Arabia, said he was praying for his own country, where war has killed tens of thousands of people and caused the world’s worse humanitarian crisis, and for Muslims around the globe. “We can tolerate the heat because our sins are greater than that,” he said as he approached the Mount of Mercy. “We ask God to alleviate the heat of the hereafter. As for the heat of this life, we can bear it.”

Hamood Ismail and his wife Raghdaa travelled from Syria, through Turkey, while taxi driver Khaled Maatouq came from Libya. They all said they were seeking an end to the suffering in their homelands which have been torn apart by conflict. For others, the pilgrimage is a form of relief. Egyptian merchant Ramadan Al-Jeedi said he was grateful to accompany his mother after his father died last year. “It’s the greatest feeling, to feel that God the almighty chose us to be in this place,” he said. Nadzmi Maruji Naid from the Philippines said he felt comfortable but a little nervous about making haj for the first time: “God willing, everyone here will be accepted by Allah.”

Pilgrims travelling from abroad account for 1.86 million of the 2.48 million taking part in this year’s hajj, according to official figures. Among them are 200 survivors and relatives of victims of the attacks on two New Zealand mosques in March. After sunset prayers, pilgrims made their way down Mount Arafat to Muzdalifah, another holy site where they will sleep under the stars to prepare for the final stage of hajj, a ritual “stoning of the devil”. That marks the beginning of Eid Al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, marked today. Sheep are traditionally slaughtered for the three-day event, a tribute to Prophet Abraham’s (PBUH) sacrifice of a lamb after God spared Ismael (PBUH), his son. Pilgrims then return to the Grand Mosque to perform a final “tawaf” or walk around the Kaaba.

The scale of the pilgrimage presents vast security and logistical challenges, with tens of thousands of safety officers deployed. Riyadh faced strong criticism in 2015 when some 2,300 worshippers were killed in the deadliest stampede in the gathering’s history. This year’s hajj takes place to a backdrop of Gulf tensions following a series of attacks on tankers, the downing of drones and the seizure of ships. Riyadh blames regional foe Tehran for the attacks on commercial shipping, accusations Iran vehemently denies.

Despite the absence of diplomatic ties between the two countries, some 88,550 Iranian pilgrims were due to take part in the hajj this year according to Iran’s Tasnim news agency. As in previous years, Saudi authorities have been at pains to stress that the hajj is a religious event and have sought to prevent its politicization.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday condemned a US blueprint to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and called on haj pilgrims to oppose it. The message was read at a rally held by Iranian pilgrims inside their compound, according to Iran’s state television which showed hundreds of pilgrims gathered in a tent chanting slogans including “America is Allah’s enemy” in Arabic, and holding signs that read “Death to Israel” and “Death to America”.

Pilgrimage is also the backbone of a Saudi plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil. The haj and year-round umrah generate billions of dollars in revenue from worshippers’ lodging, transport, fees and gifts. Officials aim to increase the number of umrah and haj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020 and the umrah number to 30 million by 2030. – Agencies