Some 1.5 million Muslim pilgrims thronged Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia on Monday for the high point of the annual Haj (pilgrimage), praying for an end to disputes and bloodshed.
Helicopters hovered overhead and thousands of troops stood guard to organise roads flooded with men, women and children.
Chanting “Labaik Allahum Labaik” (I am responding to your call, God), many of them camped in small colourful tents and took shelter under trees to escape temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). Special sprinklers were set up to help cool the pilgrims.
In his annual sermon, top Saudi cleric Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh urged Muslims to avoid divisions, chaos and sectarianism, without explicitly speaking of the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring.
“Your nation is a trust with you. You must safeguard its security, stability and resources,” the cleric, who heads Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, said in an address to the Muslim world.
“You should know that you are targeted by your enemy... who wants to spread chaos among you ... It’s time to confront this.”
He did not speak specifically of Syria, where Sunni-led rebels backed by Saudi Arabia are at war with a regime led by Alawites — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — and closely allied with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah.
But the cleric recalled the Islamic prohibition of killing and aggression, while insisting there is “no salvation or happiness for the Muslim nation without adhering to the teachings of the religion”.
Attendance is sharply down from last year, due to fears linked to the Mers virus and to multi-billion-dollar expansion work at the Grand Mosque to almost double its capacity to around 2.2 million worshippers.
Governor of Makkah province and head of the central Haj committee Prince Khalid Al Faisal said 1.38 million pilgrims had arrived from outside the kingdom while ony 117,000 Haj permits were issued for domestic pilgrims.
This puts the total number of pilgrims this year at almost 1.5 million, less than half of last year’s 3.2 million, after Riyadh slashed Haj quotas.
Prince Khalid told the official SPA news agency late Sunday that authorities had turned back 70,000 nationals and expatriates for not carrying legal permits and had arrested 38,000 others for performing the Haj without a permit.
Authorities have also seized as many as 138,000 vehicles for violating the Haj rules, and owners will be penalised, the prince said.
Saudi health authorities have stressed that no cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) virus have been detected so far this pilgrimage. The disease has killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia.
The pilgrims arrived at Arafat from nearby Mina where most of them spent the night following the traditions of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), who performed the rituals 14 centuries ago.
They had moved to Mina on Sunday from the holy city of Makkah, home to the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest place of worship, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba towards which all Muslims pray five times daily.
On reaching Arafat, they crowded onto the hill and the vast plain surrounding it to pray until sunset, when they are due to set off for Muzdalifah for a ritual on Monday symbolising the stoning of the devil.