MINA (AFP) – Around two million Muslims converged on Mina, Saudi Arabia Tuesday to symbolically stone the devil, the final stage of the annual hajj pilgrimage that has so far gone off without incident.
The occasion coincides with the first day of Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, which is celebrated by Muslims around the world.
The numbers were sharply lower this year because quotas were reduced due to massive construction work to expand the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest workship place, and fears over the deadly MERS coronavirus.
Health ministry spokesman Khaled al-Merghalani said no cases of coronavirus nor any other disease had been detected, making this year’s hajj so far free from diseases and incidents.
The Saudi public statistics department said there were a total of 1.98 million pilgrims. Of those, 1.38 million came from 188 countries, a 21-percent slide, while there were 600,700 domestic pilgrims, a massive drop of 57 percent.
Although the numbers were sharply reduced from 3.2 million last year, the crowds of faithful managed to transform the Mina Valley, just outside the holy city of Mecca, into a vast sea of white as they flocked from all directions towards the place of stoning.
An endless torrent of pilgrims, dressed in the ihram, a two-piece seamless white garment, cried “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) as they hurled pebbles they had collected overnight at nearby Muzdalifah at concrete pillars representing the devil.
Some pilgrims also took the opportunity to reflect on unrest in their home countries.
A small group of Syrians were seen carrying the rebels’ flag, while a number of Egyptians raised their four fingers, a sign of support for deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
However, no protests were staged.
Fayez Abed, a middle-aged Syrian, told AFP that when he was carrying out the stoning ritual, he imagined “those who are slaughtering Muslims; Zionists and the (Syrian) regime and those aiding it.”
“The Syrian people have been deceived; no one is helping the (rebel) Free Army to beat the regime and, as a result, Syrians are suffering,” said Abed, who lives in Saudi Arabia.
More than 115,000 Syrians have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011.
Egyptians also expressed concern about the future of their country, where clashes have killed hundreds after the military deposed Morsi.
Egyptian Mohammed Fares was worried by events in his homeland.
“I am too concerned about the situation in Egypt because we don’t know where we are heading… I believe the best solution is to go back to the ballot boxes to elect a new president,” he said.
Hundreds of police guarding the multi-storey building where the stoning ritual is carried out at times struggled to control the crowd but those performing the ritual reported a less chaotic experience than in past years.
“The crowd this year was smaller and as a result the movement was smoother,” said Shiraz Khorshid from Pakistan.
“My experience was very nice and arrangements were excellent at all facilities,” said Khorshid, a 35-year-old lecturer at a training institute in eastern Saudi Arabia.
“This year is certainly better than last year especially with regards to traffic jams and easy movement. We were able to use the train for the first time,” said Turkey al-Ashwal from Yemen, who also performed the hajj last year.
The stoning rituals continue until Friday but pilgrims in a hurry can complete it in a day.
The ritual is an emulation of Ibrahim’s stoning of the devil when he appeared at three spots trying to dissuade the biblical patriarch from obeying God’s order to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
The pilgrims have been on the move since early Sunday when the hajj began. They left Mecca for Mina where they climbed Mount Arafat on Monday for the high point of the hajj rituals.
After spending the day at Mount Arafat in prayer and reflection, pilgrims had travelled on to Muzdalifah on Monday night to collect stones and stay the night.
Early Tuesday they continued to Mina in groups, with leaders carrying their countries’ flags and banners.