MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia -- At the sacred Mount Arafat, Saudi Arabia's top cleric warned in a sermon that the enemies of Islam were seeking to destroy the faith, as 2 million Muslim pilgrims completed the main ritual of the annual hajj.
After the prayers at the hill outside Mecca, the crowds of faithful headed to the next stage of the pilgrimage: collecting pebbles that they will use today to throw at three pillars, symbolizing the stoning of the temptations of the devil.
In an emotional sermon before midday prayers Monday at Namira mosque on Mount Arafat, Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheik warned of the "vast troops" of the "enemies of Islam."
He did not specify who those enemies were or directly refer to a possible U.S.-led attack on Iraq, the crisis that has cast a shadow over the five-day hajj. The pilgrimage is taking place under tight security because of fears of protests against an Iraq war.
"The enemy has exposed its fangs and is fighting our religion and is doing its best to drive Muslims away from their religion," al-Sheik said.
"Your enemy would not defeat you with its vast troops and equipment, but you will be defeated if your faith is weakened," he said. "You have no other path but to resort to God and turn your sayings into deeds."
'Nation is bring targeted'
He said Saudis had tried in the past to spread Islam and God's word and were accused of being terrorists.
"The nation is being targeted in its religion, morals and economy. It is being targeted in its education curriculum, and they claim that the curriculum calls for terrorism," al-Sheik said.
The conservative kingdom has come under increasing criticism since Sept. 11 terror attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks were Saudis, and Saudi Arabia's curriculum, which includes religious textbooks that promote the kind of anti-Western sentiment espoused by Osama bin Laden, has been criticized as encouraging terrorism toward the West.
About 500,000 pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia joined about 1.5 million foreigners in this year's hajj.
Anti-U.S. sentiment is running high in the Muslim world because of the threat of war against Iraq and American policies on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Many pilgrims have expressed anger or dismay at what they see as campaigns against their faith.
"I hope that God destroys America for its support of the Israelis against the Palestinians," said Najmuddin, a pilgrim from Afghanistan, where men often use only one name.
The day's rituals began with dawn prayers Monday at Mina, where most pilgrims spent the night in white fireproof tents. They then made the short trek to Arafat, a gentle plateau from which a small, rocky hill known as the Mountain of Mercy rises.
By midmorning, the arid plateau became an ocean of pilgrims, with men dressed in identical seamless white garb and women covered except their hands and faces.
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.
Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it is required at least once to perform the hajj -- a centuries-old pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam and its seventh-century prophet Muhammad.
"It is the seventh time I perform the hajj," said Fawwaz Adeola, 31, from Nigeria. "I hope I can come again and again until I die."
Muhammad delivered his last sermon at Arafat in March of 632, three months before he died. Muslims believe that during this sermon, the last passage of their holy book, the Quran, was revealed to Muhammad.
The pilgrims head next to nearby Muzdalifah, where they collect pebbles for Tuesday's symbolic stoning of the devil.
The devil is represented by three pillars in Mina, just to the north in the direction of Mecca. After performing the ritual, pilgrims may celebrate the start of the Eid al-Adha, or feast of sacrifice, by slaughtering a camel, a cow or a sheep.