- Islam - religion - Saudi Arabia
AFP - Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims massed in a valley near the Saudi holy city of Mina on Monday for the stoning of Satan, the last and most dangerous rite of the annual hajj.
Hundreds of people have been trampled to death in stampedes which have blighted several previous pilgrimages to Islam's holiest sites when the faithful rush to hurl stones at huge pillars symbolising the devil.
To complete the ritual, a pilgrim must throw 21 pebbles at each of three 25-metre (82-foot) pillars and this year the faithful are being given pebbles in pre-packed bags to spare them the effort of searching for the stones.
So far this year, no major incidents have been reported, although a record number of pilgrims from abroad travelled to the holy sites, with a total of nearly two and a half million worshippers.
A large security force monitored worshippers headed for the stoning after slaughtering sheep in a ritual for the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) to recall Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son on God's order.
Most pilgrims did not sacrifice an animal themselves, but instead bought vouchers from the Saudi authorities which then forward meat in the form of aid to poor Muslims in other countries.
Saudi King Abdullah and his brother Crown Prince Sultan sent a joint message to the pilgrims on Monday.
"By performing hajj rituals, they fill the world, in fact, the entire world with mercy, tolerance, compassion and peace, promoting the values of truth, goodness and integrity while getting rid of all their resentments and animosities," they said.
The official SPA news agency reported that the most recent statistics put the total number of pilgrims at more than 2.4 million, almost 1.73 million from abroad and 679,000 from within the kingdom, mostly foreign residents.
The authorities have built bridges at three different levels on the stoning site in a bid to avoid the trampling that caused the deaths of 364 people in 2006, 251 in 2004 and 1,426 in 1990.
The interior ministry has assembled 100,000 stewards to ensure safety during the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam which the Koran says Muslims must carry out at least once in their lives if they are well enough and can afford it.
After the stoning ceremony, the pilgrims go to Mecca's Great Mosque for a "farewell visit" to the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure into which is set the Black Stone, Islam's most sacred relic.
As is the custom, the huge ornate cloth with gold-coated silver thread that covers the Kaaba was changed on Sunday at an estimated 5.5 million dollars, SPA said.