Hajj pilgrims on trek to Mt Arafat
MECCA, Saudi Arabia -- About two million pilgrims have begun moving from the holy city of Mecca toward Mount Arafat as part of their annual pilgrimage.
The mass departure of Hajj pilgrims churned up columns of dust and smog and created lengthy traffic jams.
A chorus of "at thy service, my God, at thy service" rose from the throngs as worshippers recited the pilgrim chant.
The journey is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim is required to perform it at least once in a lifetime if he or she can afford it.
This year's Hajj takes place at a time when many of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims believe that their faith, born in Mecca 14 centuries ago, is the target of a hate campaign by the West following the September 11 terror attacks on the United States.
Saudi-born exile Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network are blamed for the attacks, which sparked the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan after its former Taliban rulers refused to surrender bin Laden for trial.
The Hajj peaks on Thursday with prayers at Arafat, where the ritual begins at noon and lasts until just after nightfall.
The time spent at Arafat, where Islam's Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon months before dying in 632 A.D., is widely interpreted as a foretaste of the day of judgment.
From Arafat the pilgrims move to nearby Muzdalifa, where they collect pebbles for the next phase of the pilgrimage -- the symbolic stoning of the devil.
The devil is symbolised by three stone pillars in Mina, just to the north of Mt. Arafat in the direction of Mecca.
Then pilgrims can celebrate the start of Eid al-Adha, or feast of sacrifice, by slaughtering a camel, cow or sheep.
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