Thousands of Muslims Denounce Israel as Pilgrims Gather for Final Day of Hajj

Before supporters cheering 'Death to Israel,' Iranian ayatollah says pilgrimage marks 'resurgance of Islam.'

Creating a sea of white robes, nearly 3 million Muslims converged on a rocky desert hill outside Mecca on Sunday to perform the ritual of forgiveness marking the climax of the annual haj.

Chants of at "thy service, my God, at thy service," reverberated through the valley as the pilgrims stood to pray for God's forgiveness in the most spiritual moment of the entire pilgrimage.

But while most spent the day praying and reading Islam's holy book, the Quran, thousands - mostly Iranians, Lebanese, Iraqis and Bahrainis - held a rally inside their tents to denounce the United States and Israel.

Called the disavowal of pagans ceremony, the Iranian-sponsored, anti-U.S. protest is held annually at the hajj, bringing a whiff of politics into what is otherwise an entirely religious event.

Saudi Arabia warned before the start of the pilgrimage that it would not tolerate any anti-U.S. demonstrations, but the rally was apparently permitted because it stayed inside.

Pilgrims should not raise any slogans other than that of Islam, said Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti.

In 1987, the rally led to clashes with Saudi security forces and 402 pilgrims, mostly Iranians, were killed.

But Iranian cleric, Mohammad Tabadkani, said the rally was Islam's response against the United States' brutality and oppression. Many Iranians want opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq and Israeli policies to be heard during the hajj.

"The disavowal of pagans ceremony is based on Quranic verses. The rally here is not against any specific country but against policies of specific governments that seek to dominate Muslims or treat them unjustly," Tabadkani said.

But many pilgrims disagree, preferring the pilgrimage to be an entirely spiritual experience between the worshipper and God.

"During the hajj, the priority is to perform the rituals and not politics," said Ahmed Malek, a pilgrim from Maldives who did not participate in the rally.

The Saudi grand mufti used the occasion of the day's ritual to warn Muslims that extremism could lead to terrorism and urged the faithful to show the bright face of Islam and spread teachings calling for forgiveness, peace and love.

Al-Sheikh's sermon, which was cited by the official news agency, also declared that the world economic crisis stemmed from an abandonment of Islamic prohibition of usury.

According to Islamic teachings, the hajj is a spiritual journey that cleanses the soul and wins absolution. A Muslim who performs the hajj washes away his sins.

Standing at Mount Arafat, a hill about 12 miles (15 kilometers) east of Mecca also known as the Mountain of Mercy, is considered one of the most spiritual moments of the pilgrimage when Muslims believe God will grant their prayers.

"I've traveled from another part of the globe to kneel down here in white robe and ask for forgiveness. Please help me clean my soul before I head home," said Ahmed Hassan, a pilgrim from Malaysia.

The rocky hill is the site where Islam's Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon in 632 A.D. three months before his death. Muslims believe that the last passage of their holy book, the Quran, was revealed to Mohammed during this sermon.

The hajj, packed with symbolism and ritual, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim who can financially afford to must perform it at least once in his or her lifetime.

After sunset, the pilgrims left Arafat and headed to nearby Muzdalifah, where they collect pebbles for the next phase of the pilgrimage - the symbolic stoning of the devil represented by three pillars in Mina, just to the west.

The pilgrims then slaughter a camel, sheep or cow Monday to celebrate the beginning of the Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice.

The feast commemorates God's gift of a ram to substitute for Abraham's impending sacrifice of his son and is considered the most important holiday in the Islamic calendar.

The pilgrims remain in Mina for two more days to perform a second and third symbolic stoning of the devil and then perform a farewell circling of the Kaaba before leaving Mecca.