CAIRO - Heavy winds, rain and thunder overnight in the Muslim holy city of Mecca caused panic among thousands of pilgrims gathered from across the world for the annual hajj ritual. Amateur video showed tents being blown apart and metal scaffolding being pushed to the ground as people screamed and shouted.

Skies cleared Monday, giving way to a searing summer heat, as tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered on Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia to hear a sermon by Sheikh Hussein bin Abdelaziz Al al-Sheikh for the high point of the annual pilgrimage. The sheikh described how a series of God's prophets, beginning with Abraham, were faithful to his commands, as Abraham offered to sacrifice his son.

Unlike many previous years, the sheikh's sermon avoided politics, telling pilgrims that they should be faithful to the teachings of their religion and become better people for doing so.

Earlier Monday, workers cleaned and prepared the Kaaba, the iconic structure at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, for annual replacement of its black silk and gold covering. Prince Khaled al-Faisal, governor of Mecca, presided over the ceremony. Saudi media reported the new covering contained 670 kilograms of silk, 120 kilograms of gold and 100 kilograms of silver.

The Saudi news channel reported about 10,000 members of the country's security forces were protecting the pilgrimage sites. General Salman al-Shehri indicated everyone from navy divers to ambulance drivers were working to keep the pilgrimage safe.

In addition, the Saudi Health Ministry had staff on hand to help the pilgrims.

After descending Mount Arafat, pilgrims will spend the night in the Valley of Muzdalifa in preparation for the conclusion of the annual hajj Tuesday, with the ritual sacrifice of an animal. 

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