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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.
Aside performing the rituals, pilgrims tried to find time to return with gifts for the dozens of visitors who will come to congratulate them once back home.
In central Mecca and in the port city of Jeddah, pilgrims stocked up on prayer rugs, local perfumes, water from the holy well of Zamzam and the white headcaps that Muslims often don as a symbol of piety, despite concerns over the finance crisis.
"My grandchildren asked for rollerskates, which I was not able to find in Mecca, so I had to call my daughter and ask her to buy them from Cairo and keep them until I return," said Umm Ahmad from Egypt.
A weary Abu Ali, a 39-year-old Syrian, said now understood what his family had gone through to get him presents. "I still remember toys my grandfather and my grandmother brought me from haj as a child ... Now I feel sorry they had to do that."
Officials have taken more stringent measures this year to prevent Saudis and foreign residents from taking part without haj permits. Still some slipped through.
"I came without a permit, this has made things more difficult for me but it is my own fault," said Rida, an Egyptian who lives in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
"I could not stop myself from coming to haj," he added, sitting on a sidewalk and reading prayers from a booklet.
At Mena, many pilgrims, especially the thousands sleeping on sidewalks without tents, rose with the sun which took temperatures to around 30 degrees Celsius (86 F) by midday.
At this stage of haj, tradition says men can put away their simple white wraps. Their national dress added color to the crowd and many put on hats as protection from the sun.
"I feel inner peace now after the rituals I have performed," said Ahmad Mohammadain, a decorator from Egypt as he held an umbrella over the head of a companion sleeping next to him.
Haj is a religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim once in a lifetime and is one of the largest manifestations of religious devotion in the world today.
It retraces the path of Prophet Mohammad 14 centuries ago after he removed pagan idols from Mecca, his birthplace, and years after he started calling people to the new faith, which is now embraced by more than one billion people worldwide.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul