MENA, Saudi Arabia,(Reuters) – More than two million Muslim pilgrims began the ritual stoning of the devil on Tuesday, the climax of the annual haj pilgrimage and an occasion that has led to deadly stampedes in the past.
Some pilgrims rushed to the site early in the morning to cast their first set of stones before the crowds arrived. “We’re in a hurry to get there, I want to get there quickly,” said one man, pulling his wife along.
Some 250 pilgrims were crushed to death in 2004 at Mena’s Jamarat Bridge, where the millions of pilgrims must stand to stone three thick walls in a symbolic casting out of the devil and rejection of temptation.
King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan, in a message marking Tuesday’s Eid al-Adha holiday, said “We ask God to make this Eid one of peace and stability for Muslims and the whole world and unite Muslims in goodness and inspire them to do what is right.”
Saudi Arabia has deployed a record 60,000 security men to control the huge crowd and avert attacks by Islamist militants fighting the U.S.-allied Saudi royal family.
This year’s pilgrimage, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim, has been overshadowed by the collapse of a Mecca hostel that killed 76 people on Thursday and warnings of a possible spread of deadly bird flu due to the huge crowds.
Saudi Arabia has 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.
Three children in Turkey, which has a large haj contingent, have died of the highly potent H5N1 strain. Many pilgrims come from Asian countries, where 74 people have died since 2003.
Pilgrims must perform the stoning ritual three times. Many will stay in Jamarat until Thursday, the end of the five-day haj whose rules were laid out by the Prophet Mohammad 1,400 years ago.
The government has reorganized access to the area and promised to remove pilgrim squatters who camp there.
Pilgrims, male and female, complete the first stoning session and then go to Mecca to circle the Kaaba, which symbolizes the house of God, dressed in white robes meant to eradicate class and make all Muslims equal.
Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudeis, state-appointed preacher at the Grand Mosque, urged Muslims in his Eid sermon to remember their co-religionists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Iraq, wracked by civil strife since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
“We should not forget our brothers in Iraq in the continuing spiral of injustice and murder, and (we should) act seriously to bring security, stability and unity to them,” he said.
He also said the West was using the phenomenon of terrorism to scare people away from Islam. “Muslims are being described in insulting terms to distort the image of Islam and scare people away from it,” he said.
During Eid, Muslims slay livestock as a reminder of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail at God’s command. Pilgrims buy special coupons from haj organizers that represent the slain animal.
Mecca, a city of traders who make their living from the pilgrim traffic, comes alive as pilgrims flock to the Grand Mosque and circle the Kaaba and then queue at barbers for a haircut.