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Pilgrims pray for Arab Spring states as hajj peaks

MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia--Vast crowds of Muslim pilgrims flocked to Mount Arafat on Thursday to perform the main hajj rites, with those from Arab Spring states praying fervently for freedom and stability.

Men, women, and children from 189 countries streamed from dawn to the site in western Saudi Arabia, some setting up small colorful tents in which they slept and prayed.

Beggars and street vendors also dotted the roads searching for generous souls among the 2.5 million believers expected to converge on the plain for the most important rituals of the five-day hajj.

According to Mecca governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal, around 1.7 million people had traveled from abroad for the pilgrimage, many of them from Middle Eastern countries which have been shaken by Arab Spring uprisings.

On the vast plain surrounding Mount Arafat, prayers reflected the instability sweeping the region.

“God destroy Bashar,” prayed 30-year-old Mohammed Ahmed, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as he stood atop the “Mount of Mercy” in Arafat plain.

His mother nudged him nervously, urging him to keep quiet. “Now regime troops will kill our whole family back home” in Syria's northern Idlib province, swathes of which — but not all — are under rebel control.

In the crowds, Syrian worshippers were seen carrying a large rebel flag, a symbol of the 19-months-long deadly uprising against Assad's regime in which according to activists more than 34,000 people have died.

The Syrian government did not send any pilgrims this year, but hajj visas were granted to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.

Libyan pilgrim Ruqaya al-Fayturi, 58, told AFP she was praying for “security and stability in Libya and all other Arab and Muslim countries.”

The region was hit by a wave of uprisings that began in 2010 toppling autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In Syria meanwhile, the once peaceful mass protests against Assad have degenerated into a bloody civil war.

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Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Arafat, near the holy city of Mecca, ahead of the hajj main ritual, on Thursday, Oct. 25. Vast crowds of Muslim pilgrims, all dressed in white, ...

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