Muslims stone devil as accident-free haj nears end

Tue Dec 9, 2008 10:57am EST
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By Inal Ersan

MENA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - More than two million Muslim pilgrims performed a second round of stoning walls symbolizing the devil on Tuesday, as haj pilgrimage rituals neared their end without major incident.

"This is the fifth time I come for haj. This year stoning is much easier. Three years ago it was very difficult," said Saad al-Mohammad, 26, a Syrian secretary from Medina, Saudi Arabia.

"I felt that I was throwing the stones at the sins I had committed because of the devil," said Mohammad, who like most male pilgrims had shaved his head after completing the main rituals earlier this week.

The Jamarat Bridge in the valley of Mena outside the holy city of Mecca, where pilgrims stone the walls three times over three to four days, has been the scene of numerous stampedes, including one which killed 362 in 2006.

The haj has also been marred in previous years by deadly fires, hotel collapses and police clashes with protesters.

Saudi Arabia, Islam's birthplace and home to its holiest shrines, has erected a massive four-level building with several platforms for throwing the stones to ease congestion and prevent stampedes at the Jamarat stoning areas.

Authorities also appealed to pilgrims this year to throw their stones at any time of day rather than only in the afternoon, as Saudi clerics have often insisted in the past.

At least 2.4 million worshippers from all over the world came to Mecca this year, including a record 1.72 million pilgrims from abroad, Saudi media reported. Flags of 178 countries sending pilgrims were raised at Mena.   Continued...

<p>Muslim pilgrims head to cast stones at walls symbolising Satan in Mena December 9, 2008. REUTERS/Susan Baaghil</p>