Muslim pilgrims perform final rituals as annual hajj nears end
Nearly three million Muslim pilgrims were performing the final rituals of the hajj on Tuesday as the world's largest annual gathering neared its close without major incident.
The most dangerous rite of the annual hajj proceeded peacefully as pilgrims rushed to throw 21 stones at pillars that symbolise the devil in the village of Mina, the last rite of the annual pilgrimage.
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.
To complete the ritual, pilgrims must stone the three pillars said to symbolise the devil, also referred to as Ibleess by Muslims. The largest of the pillars is Jamrat al-Aqaba, at 30 metres (100 feet).
The ritual is an emulation of Ibrahim's stoning of the devil at the three spots where he is said to have appeared trying to dissuade the biblical patriarch from obeying God's order to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
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.
Pilgrims who are in a hurry will leave Tuesday, after they finish their stoning rituals and the farewell circumambulation of the Kaaba. Others stay for a further day.
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.
More than 12,000 security guards were organising the movement of pilgrims on the walkway this year with around 400 CCTV security cameras placed there to help manage the crowds.
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.
"Over 239,000 people have been working on ground" to serve the pilgrims and maintain order, Mecca governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal told reporters.
In the coming years, Mecca will become a "smart" city, said Prince Khaled with Saudi authorities having this year called in the latest electronic aids to help control the vast crowds.
The ministry of religious affairs has been sending 3.25 million text messages each day to the mobile phones of pilgrims to inform them of correct procedures for the hajj rites so as to "prevent that which is harmful," according to ministry official Sheikh Talal al-Uqail, cited by the official SPA news agency.
The messages managed by more than 3,000 clerics, translators and administrators aim to correct "errors" made by some pilgrims, the report said.
Saudi authorities manage the crowds with electronic monitors which track each and every pilgrim during the five-day hajj, Hajj Minister Fuad al-Farsi said.
With motion sensors placed on surveillance cameras, "we are now able to report any excessive crowds" and to react in time, said the commander of the special emergency forces, Khaled al-Mohammadi.
The religious police also post videos and documents for the guidance of pilgrims on video-sharing website YouTube, accessible at http://www.youtube.com/user/movieshajj.
For the first time this year, the hajj is being streamed live on YouTube in cooperation with the Saudi government. The stream can be seen at youtube.com/hajjlive.
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.
Poorer pilgrims bring goods from their home countries to sell in the kingdom to cover the costs of their trip.
"We use the money we get from selling goods to finance the hajj journey... as many people cannot afford the high costs of the pilgrimage," Yusef Payef, a pilgrim from Russia's restive Caucasus region of Dagestan, said.