Pilgrims perform ritual Devil stoning as haj draws to a close
By Amena Bakr
MENA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims performed the ritual stoning of the Devil on Wednesday as the annual haj season drew to a close with no significant tragedies reported by Saudi authorities who were determined to ensure a safe pilgrimage.
In June, Saudi religious authorities approved a request by the government to cut the number of pilgrims from abroad this year by a fifth and halve the number of pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia due to expansion work on the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
As a result, 1.98 million pilgrims performed haj, one of the pillars of Islam, this year against 3.2 million last year. The numbers are expected to go back up next year.
The haj, which culminates in the three-day Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, officially ends on Thursday.
"This haj was very easy as you can see its empty, so there's no pushing or people throwing stones at your head," said Hassan Saleh, an Egyptian pilgrim from Cairo.
"Last time I was here, you couldn't even walk in the street because of the crowds," Saleh, a driver who performed haj three years ago, told Reuters.
Although Saudi authorities did not draw a link with the issue, they have been concerned about whether the influx of people for haj could help spread the SARS-like coronavirus MERS, which has killed 51 people in the kingdom.
The pilgrimage, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, has been prone to disasters in the past, mainly from stampedes as pilgrims rushed to complete rituals and return home. Hundreds of pilgrims died in a stampede in 2006. Continued...