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Sun 7 Dec 2008 02:20 PM

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Millions ask for forgiveness at Haj climax

More than 2mn Muslim pilgrims gather around mountain east of Mecca at peak of Haj.

More than two million Muslim pilgrims gathered around a mountain east of Mecca on Sunday at the peak of the Haj to beg God's forgiveness, chanting "O God, I am answering your call!".

Pilgrims trickling to the area where they will pray until sunset set up thousands of tents in a vast plain.

"Being here is better than anything I had ever experienced... better than the time I saw my children for the first time," said Rawya Mohammad, a secretary from Egypt.

Rawya was one of many who arrived before dawn, some on foot, others on buses and thousands on top of any vehicle they could find.

"I feel privileged. I am one in a million Muslims with the honour of performing pilgrimage this year. This is a reward," said Omar Salah, a 38-year-old engineer from Egypt.

The Haj retraces the path of Islam's Prophet Mohammad 14 centuries ago after he removed pagan idols from Mecca, his birthplace, years after he started calling people to the new faith, now embraced by almost 1.7 billion people worldwide.

At Arafat, Muslims pray for forgiveness and for their own and fellow Muslims' welfare.

The pilgrims will later move under the night sky to Muzdalifa to collect pebbles to stone a set of walls symbolising the devil.

"It will be sudden, at one moment everyone is sitting or standing then the sun starts to go down and they all will move in the same direction," said a prayer leader.

Some pilgrims said they would also pray for an end to the global financial crisis.

"The economic crisis is on the mind of most pilgrims. They are going to pray to God to alleviate the problem... It's an unexpected crisis and the only solution is mercy from heaven," said Mohammad Fateh, who works for a brokerage in Egypt.

"The Arab and Muslim worlds are going to be affected by this crisis. I'll pray to God to lift this scourge," he said, adding that colleagues and investors had asked him to offer prayers on their behalf.

Despite a ban on political activities at Haj, a senior Iranian cleric gave a speech at Arafat to a group of pilgrims, who chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel", Iran's state television showed.

Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, head of Iran's Haj mission, told the pilgrims some Muslims had despaired "in the face of Western civilization's onslaught" but that today there was a "resurgence of Islam".

So far, Saudi authorities have reported none of the problems or disasters which have marred the Haj in previous years - such as fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protesters and deadly stampedes caused by overcrowding.

Saudi authorities have made renovations over the past year to ease the flow of pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque and the disaster-prone Jamarat Bridge. In January 2006, 362 people were crushed to death there in the worst Haj tragedy in 16 years.

An extra level has been added to the bridge so pilgrims have four platforms from which to throw stones each day, according to the rites set by the Prophet Mohammad some 1,400 years ago.

Authorities will this year make clear appeals to pilgrims to throw their stones at any time of day, rather than only in the afternoon, as Saudi clerics have often insisted in the past.

An area inside the Grand Mosque where pilgrims must walk seven times between two rocky outcrops - retracing the steps of Biblical patriarch Abraham's wife Hagar as she sought water for her son - has also been expanded to ease movement.

The government has been preventing Saudis and residents in the country taking part without official Haj permits, another cause of overcrowding.

Over 1.75 million Haj visas have been granted to Muslims abroad; at least 500,000 locals received permits too. (Reuters)

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