- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

MECCA, Saudi Arabia About 2 million Muslim pilgrims crammed cars and buses yesterday and clung to the roofs of moving vehicles as they headed toward Mina, a tent city that comes to life only during the hajj.
Chanting "at thy service, Oh God, at thy service," pilgrims started their journey in the early hours, causing a massive traffic jam on roads leading to Mina, where they will spend the night in 44,000 fireproof white tents.
The pilgrims were to leave Mina at dawn today for the short trek to Mount Arafat, marking the climax of the pilgrimage.
Before leaving Mecca, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims completed the first ritual of the hajj by circling the Kaaba, the large cubic stone structure that Muslims all over the world face during their five daily prayers.
About 500,000 pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia joined about 1.5 million foreigners in this year's hajj, which is taking place under tight security because of fears of demonstrations against a possible U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Anti-U.S. sentiment is running high in the Muslim world because of America's perceived support of Israel against the Palestinians and its threats of war against Iraq which many Muslims see as campaigns against their faith.
In a statement carried late Saturday on the official Saudi Press Agency, Saudi authorities said accidents so far this year have been "insignificant." More than 20,000 security personnel are deployed in Mecca and medical facilities are available.
Many pilgrims this year have said they are praying to God to support the Islamic nation against its enemies and hoped that another war in the region could be averted.
"We are opposed to this war, and with the will of God, it won't happen," Abdel Latif bin Fadl of Tunisia said late Saturday.
Still, a spiritual atmosphere and sense of religious duty prevailed over politics.
"I would not have come back again if I had not been enjoying the religious atmosphere here. And I am willing to come again, God willing. May God forgive us for all our sins," said Hassan La'lou, a 43-year-old Syrian pilgrim performing the rituals for the fourth time.
The hajj peaks today with prayers at Mount Arafat, a gentle hill 12 miles southwest of Mecca. The time spent at Mount Arafat is believed to symbolize Judgment Day, when Islam says every person will stand before God and answer for his deeds.
The Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon at Mount Arafat in March 632, three months before he died. Muslims believe that during this sermon, the last passage of their holy book, the Koran, was revealed to Muhammad.
From Mount Arafat, the pilgrims will move to nearby Muzdalifah, where they collect pebbles to stone three pillars symbolizing the temptations of the devil.
Then, pilgrims and Muslims around the world celebrate the start of Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice, by slaughtering a camel, cow or sheep and sharing the meat with the poor.

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