| ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia
ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia Struggling to keep his footing in a throng of Muslims trying to reach a mountain top near Mecca, Omar al-Sharkasy says it is thanks to the downfall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi that he is able to make the haj pilgrimage.
Part of a government-sponsored group for relatives of fighters killed in the civil war to defeat Gaddafi's forces, Sharkasy has joined up to 3 million people from around the world to perform the annual haj, which all able-bodied Muslims are enjoined to complete at least once in a lifetime.
This year, haj has come at a time of sweeping change in the Middle East, where a wave of uprisings has toppled veteran leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Gaddafi, captured and killed last month, was the latest to fall.
But the march for change halts outside the gates of Mecca, where pilgrims say they leave politics behind.
Sharkasy said he saw his haj opportunity as the first sign of more good things to come from his country's revolution, but during the few days in Mecca he would not think about the conditions he left behind.
"This is the first good omen for Libyans. It reassures Libyans that the riches of their country are theirs ... But our presence here is strictly for worshipping God," said Sharkasy, whose brother was killed in the fighting.
Home to Islam's holiest sites, Saudi Arabia regards itself as the guardian of Islam and assumes the responsibility of maintaining a peaceful haj season when Muslims from various sects gather at the same place and time.
"Allah did not intend haj to be a place for dispute, haggling... or using it for political agendas or preaching grim sectarianism," Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh, said late last month, as the government was preparing to receive pilgrims.
Even though pilgrims will not dabble in political discussions during haj, the imprints of a new Middle East and concerns about the future of the region are present in their prayers.
A white-bearded cleric led an Egyptian congregation of pilgrims in prayer as they walk backed to their tents from Jabal Rahma (Mountain of Mercy) in Arafat, 20 km (13 miles) east of Mecca.
"We ask for peace and security for the people of Egypt, the people of Tunisia, the people of Yemen and the people of the Levant ... Oh God make them find peace with one another," the cleric said into a handheld loudspeaker, his followers echoing his prayers after him.
With hands raised to the heavens and tears streaming down their cheeks, pilgrims cloaked in white crowded the mountain.
More than 20 who spoke to Reuters said their only concern was to make the most of their spiritual journey, seeking forgiveness for their sins. Politics was not on the agenda.
"We will not talk about politics or economics. We all agree this is not a place to argue, and is not a place to call for various causes or try to convince people," said Saeed Hamdi from Yemen, scene of nine months of protests against the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)