MUZDALIFA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - More than two million Muslim pilgrims headed to Muzdalifa on Sunday to cast stones at the devil in the most dangerous part of the haj pilgrimage.
A sea of pilgrims, some on foot, some in vehicles, moved from the plain of Arafat down a desert boulevard lit by towering floodlights. At Muzdalifa, just outside Mecca, they gathered small pebbles to throw at large walls at the Jamarat Bridge, symbolizing the rejection of temptation.
"I'm very proud to be a Muslim today. No other religion can gather this many people for any event," said Zahi Khan, a 58-year-old Pakistani.
Pilgrims will spend the next three days visiting the bridge as well as revisiting the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Monday is also Eid al-Adha, commemorating the willingness of biblical patriarch Abraham to sacrifice his son for God.
The bridge has been the scene of a number of deadly stampedes -- 362 people were crushed to death there in 2006 in the worst haj tragedy since 1990.
Saudi authorities have made renovations to ease the flow of pilgrims at the Bridge, adding an extra level so that pilgrims have four platforms from which to throw stones each day.
They are also making clear appeals 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.
Saudi Arabia has not so far reported any glitches in the haj, a logistical feat of organization that has been marred in previous years by deadly fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protesters and stampedes caused by overcrowding.
But authorities were not able to stop some political activities, which pilgrims had been called on to avoid.
Iranian television showed Iranian pilgrims at Arafat chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel." Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, head of Iran's haj mission, said Islam was now resurgent, despite some Muslims' despair "in the face of Western civilization's onslaught."
Pilgrims spent the day in prayer at Arafat 15 km (10 miles) east of Mecca at the climax of haj, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim once in a lifetime and one of the largest manifestations of religious devotion in the world today.
Throughout the day men in white seamless robes and veiled women in long dresses wept with emotion while sprinklers cooled temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).
"O God, I am answering your call," many chanted.
"Being here is better than anything I have ever experienced ... better than the time I saw my children for the first time," said Rawya Mohammad, a secretary from Egypt.
"I feel privileged. I am one in a million Muslims with the honor of performing pilgrimage this year. This is a reward," said Omar Salah, a 38-year-old engineer, also from Egypt.
The haj 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.
Some prayed for an end to the global financial crisis. "The economic crisis is on the mind of most pilgrims ... It's an unexpected crisis and the only solution is mercy from heaven," said Mohammad Fateh, from an Egyptian brokerage.
Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh said in a sermon at Arafat that straying from Islamic sharia law was behind the financial collapse and other problems.
As part of its beefed-up crowd control measures, the government has been tougher this year in preventing Saudis and residents taking part without official haj permits.
Saudi media said a record 1.72 million pilgrims came from abroad this year; over half a million come from inside the country, home to Islam's holiest sites.
Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari in Tehran; Editing by Elizabeth Piper