MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia — Libyans long denied the opportunity to make the hajj usually reserved for Moammar Gadhafi's cronies were among the millions of Muslims ascending a holy mountain Saturday to begin the annual weeklong pilgrimage.
A red carpet has replaced the Gadhafi green at the Libyan tent camp and those given preference this year to fill the North African nation's quota were relatives of fighters killed trying to oust the longtime dictator.
Vast crowds of pilgrims — wearing white robes to symbolize purity and equality under God — started at dawn to ascend the Mountain of Mercy at Arafat, 12 miles (19 kilometers) outside Mecca, where Islam's Prophet Muhammad is said to have delivered his farewell sermon.
The ascent of Arafat is the first event associated with the five-day hajj, a time to seek forgiveness for one's sins and for individual meditation on the faith. Saudi authorities say that an estimated 2.5 million pilgrims are expected to participate.
Many prayed for peace at home as the Middle East faces an unprecedented wave of anti-government protests that has toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and shaken regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.
Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Sheik, said in his sermon that Islam "is facing challenges and divisions" and urged Muslims to "solve the problems only through peaceful means away from bloodshed."
"To the people I say: solve your problems by dialogue not through blood," Al Sheik told worshippers, who created a sea of white robes covering the streets and the mountain. "And to the leaders I say: you must consider God's dictation when you deal with your people."
A celebratory mood dominated the Libyan tent camp more than two weeks after the Oct. 20 capture and killing of Gadhafi, which ended a brutal, eight-month civil war.
Three balloons decorated with the revolutionary red, green and black flag hovered overhead with colorful lights flashing on the fences and tents. A red carpet covered the ground instead the signature green one that used to be imposed every year by Gadhafi's regime.
Abdul-Hamid Kashlaf, a 45-year-old building inspector from Tripoli, and his wife were chosen along with some 7,000 other Libyan pilgrims who lost loved ones for a free hajj trip by the governing National Transitional Council.
His 17-year-old son, Abdul-Bari, was part of a secret cell in Tripoli that helped revolutionary forces overrun the capital in late August and was killed when pro-Gadhafi forces opened fire on him and fellow fighters in a mosque.
"I pray to God to grant us security and to put our country in the hands of good people," Kashlaf said as he sat on a plastic chair inside the camp.
In the past, Gadhafi's regime strictly controlled the list of Libyans selected to perform the hajj, with each country given a limit by the Saudis.
"It was very hard for normal people to have a share in Libya's nearly 7,000 seats because the beneficiaries were Gadhafi's henchmen, relatives and government officials," he said.
Prayers also were offered for anti-government protesters still facing bloody crackdowns in Syria and Yemen.
"I pray to God for an end to the bloodshed in Syria and Yemen and for our Syrian and Yemeni brothers to achieve victory," said a bearded Mohammed Abdul-Salam al-Misrati, 27, who lost his father in the fighting. Like all Libyan pilgrims, al-Misrati's identification card bore the country's new tricolor flag.
Hundreds of Yemenis have been killed since protests demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh resign began in February. Syria also has suffered a bloody uprising in which the U.N. estimates some 3,000 people have been killed since mid-March.
"I wish for security to be maintained in my country. I pray to God that we in Syria be unified and stand shoulder to shoulder," said sheik Ahmed Garman, 37, who led a group of Syrian pilgrims from Aleppo.
Also planning to climb Arafat were 256 Palestinian prisoners freed in a recent swap for a captured Israeli soldier.
To ease their journey, Egyptian authorities opened the border crossing just for them early Saturday, then buses carried them to Cairo's international airport, where they boarded a Saudi airplane that had been sent for them. Saudi King Abdullah paid for the trip, and some were provided with white robes.
After sunset, the pilgrims will leave Arafat and head 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.Comment on this story
The pilgrims then slaughter a camel, sheep or cow to celebrate the beginning of the Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of the Sacrifice."
Muslims from around the world wait a lifetime for a chance to make the pious journey in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad and Abraham, whom Muslims view as a forefather of Islam.
"I'm very happy today. I can't express my feelings," said Badr Olgach, a 41-year-old construction contractor from Turkey. "I wish and pray for the best, for all the Prophet Muhammad's followers in the world," said the father of two.
Associated Press writer Ben Hubbard in Cairo contributed to this report.