Iranian pilgrims stage protest as haj peaks
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Iranian haj pilgrims carried out a ritual protest without incident on Thursday as millions of Muslims amassed for the peak of the world's largest annual pilgrimage.
AFP - Iranians chanted death to America and Israel on Thursday as some 2.5 million Muslims, drying out after a day of torrential rains, continue their hajj pilgrimage and mass at the site of the prophet Mohammed's last sermon.
Ignoring Saudi warnings against political activity, the Iranians called for Muslim unity against the "enemies" of the faith in their camp at Mount Arafat outside of Mecca.
"Death to America, death to Israel," thousands of Iranians chanted inside a huge tent on the Plain of Arafat.
No Saudi security forces were evident as Ayatollah Muhammed Rishari, the representative of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressed the Iranian delegation.
"We need to be purified from our wrongdoings in this hajj," he said in a statement.
"We need all Muslims, Sunni and Shiite, to be unified and focus on important issues: Al-Aqsa (mosque in Jerusalem), the occupation of Palestine, the problems in Iraq, the Afghan occupation, and the fighting between brothers in Yemen. We need be purified from all infidels."
On the second day of the hajj, pilgrims poured into the plain from Mecca and Mina before dawn for a key ritual around the site where the Mohammed gave his farewell sermon on this day of the Islamic calendar 1,377 years ago.
During the hajj, pilgrims spend the day at Arafat in reflection and reading the Koran.
Thousands jammed directly onto the 70-metre (230-foot) high hill to meditate, while the bulk of the pilgrims remained on the surrounding plain.
Many were seen in the morning gazing up into the sky with their palms held upward, reciting prayers. Some were crying.
"I'm so happy because I'm in Arafat," said Fatima, a pilgrim from Morocco. "Because the Prophet Mohammed spoke with Allah from this place. This is the most holy place in the world. I'm very happy."
Faisal, 52, a Palestinian pilgrim from Israel, said he was praying for "all Muslims to be unified soon to liberate Al-Aqsa and Palestine."
As the sun set, pilgrims began moving toward Muzdalifah, where they traditionally spend the night and collect pebbles for the ritual stoning of the devil in nearby Mina over the next three days.
But beginning last year Saudi authorities began handing out the required 49 pebbles in velvet bags. This year more than a million bags have been prepared for distribution, with Muzdalifah pebbles inside, washed and sterilised.
Nine pilgrims were taken to hospital with suspected swine flu, but the overall rate of infection remained low and there were no more deaths after four people died from the disease last week, health ministry spokesman Dr Khaled Marghlani said.
Proven cases of A(H1N1) infection numbered 57 while there were another 19 suspected cases, including the new ones on Thursday, he said.
"We are also amazed by the low number," he told AFP. "Our pilgrims are safe and continue to be in good health. There are no major problems."
The weather had turned hot after heavy rains marred the first day of the hajj. Many latecomers had been stranded on the road between Jeddah and Mecca, knotting up the eight kilometre (five mile) mass move from Mecca to Mina, halfway in between Mecca and Arafat.
Around Arafat volunteers were passing out thousands of free meals all around Arafat, donated by numerous Saudi charities and businesses.
The Saudi health ministry ferried 296 patients from local hospitals to the site to take part in the hajj, accompanied by a squadron of doctors and nurses.
Meanwhile, the toll from Wednesday's rains in the region rose to 77. Nearly all the fatalities were in the port city of Jeddah 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Mecca, and many more people were reported missing, according to the civil defence authority.
The Iranian action at Arafat came after Saudi authorities and clerics sternly warned in recent weeks that political acts during the pilgrimage were forbidden and would be dealt with toughly.
In 1987, Saudi police attempts to stifle a protest by Iranian pilgrims led to a riot in which 402 people died, including 275 Iranians.
Tensions rose this year in a war of words between Tehran and Riyadh, with Iran's leaders saying predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia would mistreat the 65,000 mainly Shiite Iranian pilgrims.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and must be undertaken by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.
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