MOUNT ARAFAT - Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims thronged Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia on Monday for the high point of the annual Haj, praying for an end to disputes and bloodshed.

Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of the Ka’aba, urged Muslims to avoid divisions, chaos and sectarianism, without explicitly speaking of the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring.

Hell is the final abode for those who spill the blood of an innocent human, the cleric, who heads Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, said in the annual address to the Muslim world. “Islam does not allow terrorism at any cost. Islam condemns all violence and terrorism plaguing the world today. Muslims should demonstrate a love for peace and unity,” he said.

“Your nation is a trust with you. You must safeguard its security, stability and resources,” said Abdulaziz al-Sheikh. “You should know that you are targeted by your enemy... who wants to spread chaos among you ... It’s time to confront this.”

He did not speak specifically of Syria, where Sunni-led rebels backed by Saudi Arabia are at war with a regime led by Alawites – an offshoot of Shia Islam – and closely allied with Iran and Hezbollah. But the cleric recalled the Islamic prohibition of killing and aggression, while insisting there is “no salvation or happiness for the Muslim nation without adhering to the teachings of the religion.”

Officials said around 1.5 million pilgrims descended on the site, where they offered prayers and listen to the annual sermon from the Saudi top cleric. Helicopters hovered overhead and thousands of troops stood guard to organise roads flooded by men, women and children streaming towards Mount Arafat.

The top cleric said Muslims throughout the world were going through a difficult time, and stressed that the global economic crisis could be controlled if the Islamic economic system was adopted. “Muslims should support the community by investing in their businesses,” he urged.

Chanting “Labaik Allahuma Labaik” (I am responding to your call, God), many of the pilgrims camped in small colourful tents and took shelter under trees to escape temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). Special sprinklers were also helping cool the pilgrims.

The pilgrims were arriving at Arafat from nearby Mina where most of them spent the night following the traditions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who performed the rituals 14 centuries ago. They had moved to Mina on Sunday from the holy city of Makkah, home to the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest place of worship which houses the Ka’aba towards which all Muslims pray daily five times.

On reaching Arafat, they crowded onto the hill and the vast plain surrounding it to pray until sunset, when they are due to set off for nearby Muzdalifah. In Muzdalifa, pilgrims will spend the night before moving on in the morning to start the ritual of symbolically stoning the devil.

“I will pray the whole day for God to improve the situation for Muslims worldwide and an end to disputes and bloodshed in Arab countries,” 61-year-old Algerian pensioner Saeed Dherari said.

Sitting at the side of an Arafat road, Syrian Ahmad al-Khader prayed for oppressed Syrians to be victorious. “I hope that God will grace all Muslims with security and stability,” said 75-year-old Khader who hails from the southern province of Daraa.

The Haj, which officially ends on Friday, is one of the five pillars of Islam that every capable Muslim must perform at least once. Number of pilgrims is sharply down from last year, due to fears linked to the MERS virus and to multi-billion-dollar expansion work at the Grand Mosque to almost double its capacity to around 2.2 million worshippers.

Saudi health authorities have stressed that no cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has been detected so far this pilgrimage. The disease has killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia itself.

Governor of Mecca province and head of the central Haj committee Prince Khaled al-Faisal said 1.38 million pilgrims had arrived from outside of the kingdom while only 117,000 Haj permits were issued for domestic pilgrims. This puts the number of pilgrims this year at almost 1.5 million, less than half of last year’s 3.2 million after Riyadh slashed Haj quotas.

Prince Khaled told the official SPA news agency late Sunday that authorities had turned back 70,000 nationals and expatriates for not carrying legal permits and had arrested 38,000 others for performing the Haj without a permit. Authorities had also seized as many as 138,000 vehicles for violating the Haj rules and its owners will be penalised, the prince said.