As rains lashed the Saudi desert, tens of thousands of drenched Muslim pilgrims welcomed the deluge today as an act of God while they circled the cubic Kaaba shrine in this holy city's Grand Mosque, the final rite in the annual hajj pilgrimage.

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MECCA, Saudi Arabia — As rains lashed the Saudi desert, tens of thousands of drenched Muslim pilgrims welcomed the deluge today as an act of God while they circled the cubic Kaaba shrine in this holy city’s Grand Mosque, the final rite in the annual hajj pilgrimage.


A record 2.56 million people attended this year’s hajj, which all able-bodied Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it. Saudi authorities, jittery over fears that terrorists may strike the event, said increased security and improved crowd management saw the pilgrimage go off without a hitch.


Giant gray storm clouds dumped rain on the white-robed pilgrims, many wearing plastic shopping bags on their heads and tearing holes in garbage bags to fit their arms and legs through to stay as dry as possible.


While lightning cracked overhead, thousands of the faithful in Mina, about 4 miles from Mecca, opened umbrellas to shield them from the rain while hurling rocks at rectangular, billboard-sized stone blocks symbolizing the devil.


“Rain is always a blessing and for it to fall so hard at the end of our hajj rituals means our sins are washed away and God has accepted our prayers,” said a soaked Mohamed Jamal Khan, from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, before a gust of wind blew away the plastic bag the 42-year-old had tied to his head.


After the faithful completed rock-hurling ceremony, hundreds of buses started ferrying pilgrims from 160 countries along water-clogged roads back to Mecca, where they enter the open-aired Grand Mosque to begin performing a farewell circling of the Kaaba, which Muslims around the world face during their five daily prayers.


The pilgrims began their hajj rituals in Mecca before Wednesday’s climax at Mount Arafat, where Islam’s 7th century prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon in A.D. 632. Some have spent three days at the stoning ritual in Mina.


Many of the non-Saudi pilgrims are expected to remain in the country for several days to visit holy sites, including the holy city of Medina where Muhammad lived. The farewell visit to Mecca’s Grand Mosque is traditionally the last event to be performed by pilgrims before they depart the country.


On the minds of many pilgrims was the war in Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s northern neighbor, and last month’s tsunami disaster, which killed between 157,000 to 221,000 in wildly varying tolls across 11 countries, including hardest-hit Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.


During today’s deluge, Indonesian pilgrim Mohamed Mujahid looked worriedly out of the bus window as water levels rose to above wheel height in some places on the Mina to Mecca road, which was choked by traffic and pilgrims opting to walk rather than catch a lift.


“I was a little worried when I saw the water level rising because of all the rain,” said 20-year-old Mujahid, who traveled from Kalimantan province with his father and mother. “I was scared that it would turn into a tsunami.”


He added: “I prayed to God for the people that lost their lives in the tsunami and that a tsunami never happens again anywhere in the world.”


Shopping for trinkets in a Mecca souk, Iraqi pilgrim Aboud Sulieman said he prayed for the holding of successful, safe elections for his war-ravaged country scheduled for Jan. 30.


“I prayed throughout the hajj for the peace and stability of my country,” said the 57-year-old from the northern city of Mosul while considering whether to buy a set of Muslim prayer beads made in China. “We have elections coming up and I pray to God that it all goes through without any problems. The future of my country is at stake here.”