MENA, Saudi Arabia,(Reuters) – Muslim pilgrims performed final rites of the haj on Thursday, as the pilgrimage wound down safely after fears of the possible spread of bird flu and a repeat of the deadly stampedes of past years.
More than two million people took part in this year’s haj, which was overshadowed by the collapse of a Mecca hostel that killed 76 people ahead of the pilgrimage and warnings the huge crowds could lead to a possible spread of the deadly bird flu.
But new measures by the Saudi authorities managed to avert deadly crushes during the five-day ritual, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim at least once in a lifetime.
“This is my first haj and at first I was scared of the crowds,” said Saudi woman Umm Saad. “Then I let faith take over my fear and everything was fine. It has been a good haj.”
Some 250 pilgrims were crushed to death in 2004 at Mena’s Jamarat Bridge, on which the millions of pilgrims must stand while they hurl stones at three thick walls in a symbolic casting out of the devil and rejection of temptation.
Rather than pile into the melee of pilgrims and pebbles, many women delegate someone else to cast their stones for them.
“I’m proud that I managed to do the stoning myself,” said Maha, another Saudi. “I’m still healthy and young.”
Pilgrims, in white robes meant to eradicate differences in race and class between Muslims, perform a third day of stoning on Thursday and make a final visit to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, according to rules laid out by Prophet Mohammad 1,400 years ago.
They will circle the Kaaba, which Muslims believe God’s presence is most felt and towards which Muslims around the world turn daily in prayer.
Pilgrims will start heading home late on Thursday, though many stay on for days in Mecca, the birthplace of Islam.
Saudi Arabia has revamped the Jamarat area, expanding the stoning targets and provided an unprecedented security blanket including 60,000 security men to control the huge crowd and avert possible attacks by Islamist militants.
After this year’s haj, the Jamarat bridge will be replaced with a more elaborate bridge involving a four-level system of entrances and exits to the three walls, including a subway, and costing 4.2 billion riyals ($1.12 billion).
The kingdom this year spent 25 million riyals ($6.7 million) on Tamiflu, a drug that can reduce the severity of the current bird flu strain if taken within days of symptoms appearing.
Two children in Turkey, from where many pilgrims come, are confirmed to have died from the H5N1 strain. Many pilgrims come from east Asia, where 76 people have died since 2003.
The deadly virus is hard for people to catch and is almost invariably transmitted by close contact with infected poultry.