MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia – Some 2 million Muslims from around the world gathered Friday at a desert hill near Mecca in Saudi Arabia in an act of faith and repentance during the climactic emotional and spiritual moment of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
Men and women wept openly on Mount Arafat as they stretched their hands out in prayer and supplication, saying "Labayk, Allahuma, labayk," — "Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am."
The faithful believe that on this day the gates of heaven are open, prayers are answered and past sins can be forgiven.
The pilgrimage is physically demanding and involves performing several rites, such as circling the cube-shaped Kaaba seven times at the start and finish of the hajj. It is a main pillar of Islam and one that all able-bodied Muslims must perform once in their lives.
For many pilgrims, the journey to Saudi Arabia is an experience of a lifetime.
"I wish from God forgiveness and to accept our hajj. ... This is what I wish for," said Syrian pilgrim Hassan Ahmed as he stood on the hill in Mount Arafat.
All male pilgrims, regardless of wealth or status, wear seamless terry white cloths to symbolize equality before God during the hajj. Women cover their hair and wear long loose clothing, forgoing makeup and other adornments to help them detach from worldly pleasures and outward appearances.
It was at Mount Arafat some 1,400 years ago that the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon during hajj. He called for equality and for Muslims to unite. He reminded his followers of women's rights and that every Muslim life and property is sacred.
While following a route that the prophet once walked, the rites are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible. The journey of hajj brings together Muslims of all stripes and backgrounds, praying side-by-side in and around Mecca for about five days.
Sectarian bloodletting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria weighed heavily on the minds of pilgrims in Mount Arafat, as did the challenges posed from extremist groups who claim to use Islam to justify brutal acts of beheadings and killings.
"Those extremist groups have destroyed our country. ISIL will destroy Iraq like it did with Syria," said Syrian pilgrim Negm Eldin Tarabish referring to the Islamic State group that has taken over parts of Syria and Iraq by an alternative acronym.
Kurdish pilgrim Deldar Rashid said he believes God will punish those terrorist groups for the damage they have done.
"They have destroyed the Arab and Islamic world and gave a bad image of Islam, and by God we will defeat them in the near future," Rashid said.
The pilgrims will leave Mount Arafat — about 12 miles (20 kilometers) east of Mecca — around sunset to collect pebbles to be used in a symbolic stoning of the devil on Saturday, which marks the first day of the Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.