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2 Million Hajj Pilgrims Arrive at Mt. Arafat - 2003-02-10

About two million Muslims have gathered at Islam's most sacred site to pray for forgiveness and guidance in what is the highlight of Islam's annual pilgrimage, the Hajj. Reaching the site is the pinnacle of one of Islam's holiest days.

It is a spiritual journey Islam believes wipes away sins and cleanses the soul.

It is the annual Hajj, and this year about two million Muslim pilgrims traveled 20 kilometers on foot, in cars, in buses and on camels, from Mecca to Mt. Arafat, or Mountain of Mercy, for a solemn prayer ritual which is the highlight of the five-day pilgrimage.

For Muslims, the time spent praying at Mt. Arafat symbolizes the day of judgement, when all people will stand before God and answer for their deeds.

Three months before he died 14 centuries ago, Islam's prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon at Mt. Arafat. It was during the sermon that Muslims believe God revealed to Muhammad the last chapter of Islam's holy book, the Koran.

All Muslims are expected to travel to Mecca for the Hajj at least once, if they are physically and financially able to do so. For most Muslims the Hajj is the journey of a lifetime.

From Mt. Arafat, the pilgrims will move to nearby Muzdalifah to throw stones at three pillars. The ritual symbolizes the stoning of the temptations of the devil.

The ceremonies mark the start of the holiday Eid al Adha, Festival of the Sacrifice, in which Muslims sacrifice animals and share the meat with the poor.

Half a million pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia were joined this year by about a 1.5 million foreigners.

With tensions running high over a possible U.S.-led attack against Iraq, this year's Hajj was under tight security. An estimated 20,000 police and soldiers, backed up by helicopters, lined the pilgrimage route. Officials say this year's Hajj has been peaceful, with only sporadic outbursts of anti U.S. sentiment.