Rain soaks pilgrims on Muslim hajj in Saudi Arabia

Rain soaked crowds of Muslim pilgrims and lightning flashed Thursday as they performed some of the final rituals of the annual hajj, stoning symbols of the devil and circling the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site.

Some 2.8 million Muslims from all over the world were participating in the pilgrimage this year, and some were finishing the rites on Thursday, though many would continue for another day.

The pilgrims walked seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped shrine in Mecca, in a "farewell" ritual before leaving. Others were in the desert valley of Mina, several miles away, throwing stones at three walls representing Satan in a symbolic rejection of temptation.

Pilgrims' struggles to navigate the holy sites through the massive crowds that jam roads and streets was made more difficult by rain late Wednesday and Thursday.

In Mina, drenched pilgrims took shelter under whatever structures they could find. The top, exposed level of the multi-story bridge that gives access to the stoning walls was empty of people, and knee-deep water ran through parts of the ground level. Still, a thinner stream of pilgrims kept coming to perform the rite, some with umbrellas, some with plastic bags over their heads.

For most, the rain didn't dampen the powerful emotion of the religious experience.

"This makes me a strong Muslim, God is very big and I'm very small. I was like a child asking for help from his mother and father," Seifallah Khan, a 38-year-old from Karachi, Pakistan, said of his feelings as he performed the rites.

An Egyptian from the Nile Delta, 60-year-old Sayed Mutwalli, said that now that he was retired, he could finally fulfill his dream of performing hajj. But, he added, "age has its limits. There's a lot of difficulties but God gives you strength."

Going on hajj is a religious duty for every Muslim capable of performing it. Some faithful save up money their whole lives to make the trip — others repeat it multiple times to relive the feeling of closeness to God they say it brings.

The rites, which began Monday, harken back to Islam's Prophet Muhammad as well as to Abraham, the Biblical patriarch whom Muslims also revere and who they say built the Kaaba. Muslims around the world face the shrine every day while performing prayers.

Farag Khalil, an Egyptian butcher in his 50s, said it was his third time performing the pilgrimage. "I hope from God that for as long as I live I manage to make it to hajj," he said. "Prayers in Mecca are like a 100,000 times (the value) of prayer from any other mosque."

He arrived in the country two weeks before hajj began and planned to stay an extra week to visit nearby sites, including the prophet's mosque in the holy city of Medina.

"Why should I be in a hurry to leave? I wish I could die here," he said. "Everytime I come I regret the time of my life I spent outside of Mecca."