MINA, Saudi Arabia - Millions of white-robed pilgrims threw pebbles at pillars Thursday, symbolically stoning the devil in an act of purification - an old ritual made safer this year because of remodeling that widened bridges and reduced congestion.
The extensive construction work was undertaken to avoid the crushes of people that have led to fatal stampedes in the past, such as the one that killed 1,426 pilgrims in 1990 and 244 last year.
The stoning, which lasts several days, is one of the main rituals in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj. In much of the Muslim world, the faithful marked the first day of the Feast of Sacrifice, or Eid al-Adha, the most important holiday in the Islamic calendar.
For many Muslims, the day began with dawn prayers in a mosque, where sermons often mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq. At a mosque in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, Shiite Muslim cleric Sheik Ahmed Kourani blasted what he called the U.S. "invasion of our lands ... seeking to humiliate us."
In Cairo, families strolled along the Nile, with children wearing new clothes for the feast and holding balloons. Many people took boat rides. A group of high school girls said they were delighted to be spending the day without their parents. They went to a mosque together and witnessed the slaughtering of sheep.
In the West Bank, Mahmoud Gilani took his four children to a Ferris wheel in the center of Nablus. He said the cost of the conflict with Israel meant that he butchered a turkey instead of a sheep.
Many Arabs marked the feast, which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God, by visiting the graves of their relatives and holding family lunches.
In Mecca, the sermon in the Grand Mosque condemned the Islamic militants who have waged a 20-month campaign of suicide bombings and attacks, focusing on Westerners. "Branding people as infidels is a dangerous phenomenon that is caused by deviation and extremism," Sheik Abdel-Rahman al-Soudeis told worshipers. He accused the militants of "causing instability, shaking security, and dividing the unity of the (Muslim) community."
In Mina, many pilgrims began the day's ritual early Thursday, taking advantage of a religious edict that permits them to stone the devil before dawn prayers.
The Saudi authorities spent the past year building wider footbridges to the area where pilgrims hurl stones, erecting wider and taller pillars, and adding new emergency exits.
About 10,000 police officers patrolled the area to ensure a smooth flow of pilgrims.
After the stoning, most pilgrims walked to a slaughter yard where they butchered a sheep, either with their own hands or by asking an attendant to do so. Pilgrims paid about $120 for the sheep. Some pilgrims preferred to avoid the slaughter and bought a coupon. The revenue from the slaughtered sheep and the coupons goes to a fund that pays for the meat to be distributed among low-income people outside Saudi Arabia.
All able-bodied Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage or hajj at least once in their lifetimes, if they can afford it. About 2-million pilgrims do so each year.
The pilgrimage begins with the circling of the Kaaba, the large cubic stone structure in Mecca that Muslims face during their five daily prayers. Pilgrims go to the nearby Mount Arafat, where Islam's prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon in 632, three months before his death.
The celebration of Eid al-Adha started Thursday in Saudi Arabia and many other countries. However, many Muslims will start their celebration today. The scheduling of the holiday, the Feast of Sacrifice, depends on the sighting of the moon. The Hajj Authority in Saudi Arabia originally said the holiday would begin today, but that was changed Jan. 14. However, many Muslims in North America and elsewhere stuck with the original schedule.
Sources: Islamic Society of North America, Islamic Circle of North America