By Muhammad Yamany
ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - More than two million Muslims gathered at Mount Arafat on Monday for a vigil to atone for their sins and ask God's forgiveness as the annual haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia approached its climax.
Pilgrims clad in white robes signifying a state of purity spent the night in an encampment around the hill where Islam holds that God tested Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail. It is also where Prophet Mohammad gave his last sermon.
Other worshippers who had been praying in the nearby Mina area ascended in buses or on foot from before dawn.
Some pilgrims carried bright umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun as temperatures rose above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) after an evening of thunderstorms and high winds. Men and women from 165 countries gathered side by side, while soldiers handed out bottled water and a few people snapped quick selfies.
Pakistani pilgrim Mohamed Forqan, 30, said it was a great day to be a Muslim. "Here in Arafat we feel that we are born today asking Allah to forgive our sins," he said.
Hilal Issa, a 70-year-old from Algeria, said he was praying for God to pardon all Muslims and save the Arab world from its afflictions.
For a graphic on The haj journey http://tmsnrt.rs/2imJ2yf
Saudi Arabia has said that more than 2.3 million pilgrims, most of them from outside Saudi Arabia, have arrived for the five-day ritual, a religious duty once in a lifetime for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey.
The pilgrims will spend the day on Mount Arafat. By sunset they will move to the rocky plain of Muzdalifa to gather pebbles to throw at stone columns symbolising the devil at another location called Jamarat on Tuesday, which marks the first day of Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice.
A new kiswa, the cloth embroidered with verses from the Koran, was placed over the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque late on Sunday. Pilgrims will return to pray there at the end of haj.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam's holiest sites -- Mecca and Medina -- and organising the pilgrimage.
A perennial concern is the potential for disease spreading among pilgrims, who spend five days in close quarters, often eating outside and sleeping on the ground near holy sites.
The world's largest annual gathering of Muslims has in the past also seen stampedes, fires and riots, with authorities sometimes struggling to respond. Hundreds were killed in a crush in 2015, the worst disaster to strike haj for at least 25 years.
Officials say they have taken all necessary precautions this year, with tens of thousands of security forces and health workers on hand to maintain safety and provide first aid.
Pilgrimage is also the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the kingdom's economy away from oil. The haj and year-round umrah generate billions of dollars in revenue from worshippers' lodging, transport, fees and gifts.
Officials aim to increase the number of umrah and haj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020, and hope to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Tola in Cairo, Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Gareth Jones)