Hajj cleric condemns terrorism
MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi Arabia's top cleric has condemned terrorism but urged unity among Muslims to defend their faith.
He made the call in a sermon to about 2 million worshippers gathered for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca at the site of Prophet Mohammed's last sermon 14 centuries ago near Mount Arafat.
Sheik Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheik told pilgrims: "Islam orders respecting people's rights, money, honour and lives ... and instructs against killing children, women and the unarmed."
He stressed that Islam was incompatible with terrorism and attributing terrorism to it was unjust.
"Fighting the oppressed Muslims in Palestine is terrorism and repression," he said, in reference to Israel.
This year's pilgrimage comes amid tension in the Muslim world after the September 11 terror attacks in the U.S. and the U.S.-led war against terror, which many Muslims see as a war against their faith.
"The nation of Islam is going through immense events today, requiring attention be paid in order to be one nation defending its belief," Al-Sheik said.
CNN correspondent Rula Amin said many pilgrims had decided to make the journey after September 11 as they felt it was a time to reaffirm their faith and learn more about it. They wanted to convey the peace and goodwill of Islam.
After offering dawn prayers at the nearby valley of Mina, where most pilgrims spent the night in white fireproof tents, the pilgrims began the short journey to Mount Arafat, a gentle plateau from which a small and rocky hill known as the Mountain of Mercy rises.
By midmorning, the area was almost entirely covered with men in seamless white garments and women covered from head-to-toe except for the face and hands.
"I have waited a long time for this day," said Mohammed el-Sir, a high school teacher from Sudan. "I shall never forget it as long as I live."
Able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it.
The ritual, which begins in the nearby holy city of Mecca -- birthplace of Islam and its seventh-century prophet -- is a spiritual journey that, according to tradition, cleanses the soul and wipes away sins.
Chanting "At Thy service, my God, at Thy service," the pilgrims arrived in Arafat on foot and in buses and all-terrain vehicles.
Many then climbed the Mountain of Mercy despite warnings by Saudi authorities of the danger of rock falls. Dozens of policemen were deployed on the hill to discourage the pilgrims from making the short climb.
Hundreds of policemen and security troops shouted directions at drivers and pedestrians as police helicopters flew above.
Several police buses were loaded with anti-riot gear and parked nearby as policemen carried out random identity checks on the pilgrims.
Every year during the pilgrimage, Iranians hold a low-key "disavowal of pagans ceremony" within their camp to condemn the U.S. and Israel.
Although Saudi Arabia said before the start of the pilgrimage that it would not tolerate any anti-U.S. demonstrations, the reported rally was apparently allowed because it was confined within the Iranian camp.
The pilgrims will stay at Arafat until shortly after sunset on Thursday when they will head to nearby Muzdalifah, where they will collect pebbles for the next phase of the pilgrimage -- the symbolic stoning of the devil -- which begins Friday.
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