Pilgrims perform ritual Devil stoning as haj draws to a close

By Amena Bakr

MENA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims performed the ritual stoning of the Devil on Wednesday as the annual haj season drew to a close with no significant tragedies reported by Saudi authorities who were determined to ensure a safe pilgrimage.

In June, Saudi religious authorities approved a request by the government to cut the number of pilgrims from abroad this year by a fifth and halve the number of pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia due to expansion work on the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

As a result, 1.98 million pilgrims performed haj, one of the pillars of Islam, this year against 3.2 million last year. The numbers are expected to go back up next year.

The haj, which culminates in the three-day Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, officially ends on Thursday.

"This haj was very easy as you can see its empty, so there's no pushing or people throwing stones at your head," said Hassan Saleh, an Egyptian pilgrim from Cairo.

"Last time I was here, you couldn't even walk in the street because of the crowds," Saleh, a driver who performed haj three years ago, told Reuters.

Although Saudi authorities did not draw a link with the issue, they have been concerned about whether the influx of people for haj could help spread the SARS-like coronavirus MERS, which has killed 51 people in the kingdom.

The pilgrimage, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, has been prone to disasters in the past, mainly from stampedes as pilgrims rushed to complete rituals and return home. Hundreds of pilgrims died in a stampede in 2006.

Saudi authorities have since lavished vast sums to expand the main haj sites and improve Mecca's transportation system.

LOWER NUMBERS

Of the total number of pilgrims this year, 1.38 million came from 188 countries, a 21 percent slide, and the remaining were domestic pilgrims, with their numbers dropping by around 57 percent.

"Many Saudis and other people who live in Saudi Arabia didn't come to the haj this year because they were scared of this coronavirus spreading," said Hassan Al Fares, a pilgrim from Saudi Arabia's Eastern province.

The Saudi ministry of health confirmed several times this week that no cases of the deadly MERS virus were reported among pilgrims.

Haj security authorities also confirmed at a news conference late on Tuesday that no major incidents such as stampedes or political protests occurred this year. Some 95,000 members of the security forces were drafted to maintain order.

Aware of the potential for incidents to flare into political violence at a time of upheaval across the Middle East, including the war raging in Syria, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef asked pilgrims to leave disputes at home.

Regional Arab and Muslim organisations had pleaded with President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian rebels to mark Eid with a ceasefire, to no avail.

"We come here in peace and we will leave in peace, there's no need to hold a protest in the holy land, but prayers said here are like rockets they go straight to God who will free us from Bashar," said pilgrim Khalid al-Semari, a Syrian health worker. (Editing by Sami Aboudi and Sonya Hepinstall)

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