Haj nears end as pilgrims stone devil, visit Mecca
By Inal Ersan
MENA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - More than two million Muslims performing the haj pilgrimage entered the final stage of the rituals on Wednesday, visiting the Grand Mosque in Mecca and stoning walls representing the devil one more time.
For a third day pilgrims threw stones at the Jamarat Bridge in the valley of Mena outside the Islamic holy city of Mecca, which has been the scene of numerous stampedes in past years, including one which killed 362 in 2006.
The haj also has been marred in previous years by deadly fires, hotel building collapses and police clashes with protesters. More stringent security and crowd control this year appeared to have paid dividends, though there were still lapses.
"God makes things easy. The expansions have reduced crowding a little," said Mohammad Mousa, an Egyptian teacher and father of two pushing a twin pram by a pilgrim bus.
"Praise be to God -- things are smooth, we've not heard of any incident. The flow of pilgrims is moving very well," said Saudi preacher Ali Hussein Sawadi Mashour.
Saudi Arabia, Islam's birthplace and home to its holiest sites, has erected a massive four-level building with several platforms for throwing the stones at three walls in an ancient rite marking chapters of the story of the prophet Ibrahim -- the biblical Abraham -- in Mecca and the rejection of temptation.
The unfinished bridge is now a huge air-conditioned building the size of an airport terminal. Expansions also have been made to the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Authorities have appealed to pilgrims to throw their stones at any time of day rather than only in the afternoon, as Saudi clerics often insisted in the past. Continued...