Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims flooded a valley near the Saudi holy city of Mina on Monday to stone pillars representing Satan, on the penultimate day of the annual hajj.
The most dangerous rite of the annual hajj proceeded peacefully as pilgrims rushed to throw 21 stones on the three pillars that symbolise the devil, the last rite of the annual and compulsory pilgrimage to the Saudi city of Mecca, the birthplace of Islam and its holiest site.
In previous years, hundreds of people have been trampled to death in stampedes triggered by crowds trying to get close to the pillars to take their vengeance on the symbol of the devil.
“This time the stone-throwing process was easy, not like years past,” said 33-year-old Calazar Shah, a Pakistani pilgrim on his second hajj journey.
To complete the ritual, pilgrims must throw seven pebbles at each of three 25-metre (82-foot) pillars on the first day of the three-day Eid al-Adha feast marking the end of the hajj, and another seven on each of the last two days.
Pilgrims then make their way 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.
Tuesday is the third and final day of the stoning ritual and once complete, will mark the end of the hajj.
Saudi authorities have installed a multi-level walkway through the stone-throwing 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.
So far, no major incidents have been reported among the pilgrims, which the Saudi statistics office said numbered 2.93 million this year. The figure includes 1.83 million foreigners.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be performed at least once in a lifetime by all those who are able to make the journey.
In a message to the pilgrims posted on the website of Saudi state news agency SPA Monday, King Abdullah said the hajj promotes “unity and solidarity” among Muslims, and urged the world’s Muslim nations to “overcome division and discord”.
In a separate speech read out by Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz on behalf of King Abdullah, the monarch said the “Islamic nation is passing through continuous challenges that demand our appreciation of future dangers.”
“We must recognise that divisions … lead to chaos and weakness that will only benefit the enemies of the (Islamic) nation,” he said in an apparent reference to the Arab Spring revolts that have so far led to the fall of long-time leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
“I appeal … to the leaders and Muslim people to assume their historic responsibility … We must choose the path of unity … not chaos,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has escaped the mass protest movements that have swept the Arab world demanding freedom and democracy after decades of autocratic rule, though the minority Shiites in the kingdom’s Eastern province have held numerous demonstrations demanding equality in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.