MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia — Nearly 3 million Muslims performing the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia climbed the rocky desert Mount Arafat on Monday, chanting that they have come to answer God's call.
The white-robed pilgrims began their ascent at dawn, covering the Mountain of Mercy at Arafat in an endless sea of white as their chants of "Labyek Allah" — or "Here I am, God, answering your calling" — reverberated.
The climb is one of the cornerstones of the pilgrimage, which is required from every able-bodied Muslim at least once in his life. It is the site where Islam's Prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon, and Muslims believe on this day the doors of heaven open to answer prayers and grant forgiveness.
Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Sheik, called on worshippers in a midday sermon to espouse moderation and said Islam would survive what he described as attempts to defame the faith.
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"Islam will remain strong in the face of the vicious campaign that is attacking it," he said at the Namira mosque. "Muslims, the dearest thing you have is your religion and your belief. ... Be proud of your religion; don't ever be ashamed of identifying our religion."
The hajj draws millions of worshippers each year, the sheer numbers a challenge in preventing stampedes at holy sites, fires in pilgrim encampments and the spread of disease.
This year Saudi authorities have taken new measures to improve crowd management, including opening a new light-rail system to transport pilgrims between the sites.
Florida pastor who once threatened to burn Quran leads small anti-mosque protest in NYC
NEW YORK — The Florida pastor who backed down from a threat to burn the Quran on Sept. 11 has led a few dozen protesters to the site of a proposed mosque near ground zero.
Terry Jones expressed sympathy on Tuesday for 9/11 victims' families. But he also spoke out against the radical Islam he said was the cause of their deaths.
Jones says he doesn't know whether those planning the mosque and Islamic cultural center are radicals.
He says he hopes they choose not to build the mosque there, just as he decided not to burn the Islamic holy book.
The Gainesville, Fla., pastor says he has nothing against peaceful Muslims.
Some of Jones' supporters identified themselves as Coptic Christians from Egypt, saying they had fled persecution because of their religion.
SC Southern Baptists OK resolutions encouraging gambling restrictions, anti-gay preaching
COLUMBIA, S.C. —South Carolina's Southern Baptists have approved a resolution encouraging pastors to preach against homosexuality but also urging Christians to show compassion to gay people.
Another resolution passed by more than 1,000 delegates at a convention in Columbia on Tuesday also urges state lawmakers to vote against any bills that would expand legal gambling activity in South Carolina.
Other resolutions approved Tuesday encourage Baptists to be more involved in prison ministries.
Delegates also approved a $29.5 million budget, a decrease of more than 9 percent from last year's budget.
The two-day convention wraps up Wednesday.
Austria's parliament approves euro 20 million for restoring Jewish cemeteries over next two decades
VIENNA — Austria's parliament passed a bill Wednesday to provide euro 20 million ($27 million) in federal funds for restoring Jewish cemeteries over the next two decades.
The move ends years of discord over who should pay for the much-needed endeavor to preserve the remnants of a once-vibrant community decimated by the Nazis.
The bill foresees annual government payments of euro1 million ($1.4 million) into a special fund over the next 20 years. The country's Jewish community will supplement the government's contributions each year through euro1 million in donations.
The measure, which takes effect in 2011, also asks local municipalities where such cemeteries are located to maintain them for at least 20 years after they have been restored.
Ariel Muzicant, president of Jewish Community Vienna, welcomed Wednesday's vote, which followed a government pledge to provide funds last December.
In total, there are 61 Jewish cemeteries in the Alpine republic, he said.
An estimated 65,000 Austrian Jews perished in the Holocaust and many others fled. In 1938, about 192,000 Jews lived in Austria, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Kentucky Baptist Convention vote heeds call to transfer funding to overseas missions
LEXINGTON, Ky. —Kentucky Baptists have voted to cut staff and programs as part of a plan to send more money to missionaries overseas.
The vote is in line with a task force recommendation to transfer funding to the mission work.
The 621-317 vote Tuesday took place at the annual meeting of the Kentucky Baptist Convention at Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington.
The Courier-Journal reports that Baptists voted to make the cuts more gradually than originally proposed, approving the task force's revised recommendation to spread out the cuts across 10 years.
The move slightly reduced the levels of cuts in the first year to programs within the Kentucky Baptist Convention and two affiliated colleges, Campbellsville University and the University of the Cumberlands.
Bishop: ELCA not against biotech seeds; issue cited in ND church recently leaving ELCA
FARGO, N.D. —The bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America says a draft statement on genetics being reviewed by the nation's largest Lutheran denomination does not condemn farming with genetically modified seed.
Bishop Bill Rindy tells The Forum newspaper that the ELCA's proposed position on human, animal and plant genetics calls for a "careful and thoughtful" approach.
Congregation members at Anselm Trinity Lutheran Church in the southeast North Dakota town of Sheldon recently voted to leave the ELCA. The rural town is in an area where biotech crops are common.
Rindy says the ELCA's draft statement does not dictate what farmers should or should not plant.
The statement would have to be passed at an ELCA Churchwide Assembly to be adopted. The next assembly is in August 2011.