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Muslim pilgrims perform devil-stoning ritual as hajj nears end

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Millions of pilgrims in Saudi Arabia on Friday furiously cast pebbles in a symbolic stoning of the devil, carrying out a final rite of hajj, as Muslims around the world celebrated the start of Islam’s biggest holiday, the Feast of Sacrifice.

Chanting “Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest),” worshippers from 189 countries advanced in waves around Jamrat al-Aqaba, the largest of three adjacent pillars, in the rite that will continue at least until Saturday.

Though pilgrims will repeat the stoning ritual for at least two more days, they could now call themselves “hajjis,” referring to those who have done the pilgrimage.

Malik Evangelatos, from Ukiah, Calif., said the experience felt “wonderful, satisfying and humbling.”

Evangelatos, who converted to Islam six years ago, said the simple pilgrim’s garment that he had worn the past few days helped him “see the bigger picture in life and go back changed, happy and appreciative.” For him, the hajj brought a chance to be truly equal regardless of ethnicity or race.

“It has probably been the highlight of my life outside of getting married and having a baby,” he said. “You feel an emotional release. It is something that is not recreated anywhere else in the world.”

For the stoning ritual, the 3.4 million pilgrims from around the world filed in crowds through a multi-level structure housing the walls symbolizing the devil in the desert valley of Mina, outside the holy city of Mecca.

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 him from obeying God’s order to sacrifice his son, Ismael.

“I managed to throw pebbles at Jamrat al-Aqaba early in the morning when the place wasn’t so crowded,” 47-year-old Malaysian Abdullah Noor told AFP.

“My feelings are a mixture of happiness and sadness. I’m happy because I managed to reach this holy land -- a dream I have had for years,” he said. “But I’m sad because I couldn’t bring my family with me.”

Daud Baev, a 65-year-old Kazakh, said: “This is the time to atone for the sins committed over the years.”

The structure of ramps maintains traffic flow, moving pilgrims on four levels past the walls, as they throw seven pebbles at each. Some have criticized the nearly kilometer-long (0.6 mile) cement structure, which resembles a mega parking garage with escalators, saying it detracts from the simplicity and spiritual aspect of hajj.

But the facility protects lives, Hajj Ministry Director General Amin Fatani, told The Associated Press.

“The life of a hajji is precious to the government and their safety comes first,” Fatani said. “If we leave hajj the way we had it been before, there will be a catastrophe from the first day.”

On Friday, Muslims marked the holiday, known in Arabic as Eid al-Adha, commemorating what Muslims believe was Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail as a test of his faith from God.

Around the world, Muslims slaughtered lambs, sheep and other livestock in remembrance, giving the meat to the poor. At Mina, pilgrims purchased tokens to have a sheep slaughtered at nearby slaughterhouses.

The day of stoning marked an exhausting trek for pilgrims between the string of ritual sites strung across the desert outside Mecca. They spent the day Thursday at Mount Arafat in a day of contemplation and prayers to wipe away past sins. Then overnight, they went to the nearby plain of Muzdalifah to collect the pebbles they would use in the stoning ritual before heading to Mina by the morning.

After they stone the pillars, pilgrims end their Ihram by shaving or cutting their hair for men while women trim the length of a finger-tip from one strand of hair.

Ihram is a state in which pilgrims wear special clothing -- two-piece white seamless garments for men and any loose dress for women, who completely cover themselves except for their hands and faces.

Pilgrims then change back into normal clothing from white shrouds that symbolize the resurrection.

Between the movements, many also went back into Mecca to again circumambulate the Holy Kaaba, toward which Muslims pray every day – Islam’s holiest site.

Tunisian pharmacist Ahlam Zahar said she teared up seeing the sheer number of people praying in unison as she approached the Kaaba late Thursday before coming to Mina for the stoning on Friday.

“Hajj needs energy and concentration,” she said. “It’s really hard under the heat.”

For most pilgrims coming from poorer Muslim nations, it is common to sleep in the streets and walk the trajectory among the sites, a distance of around 30 kilometers (19 miles). Many have children or elderly relatives with them.

“I envy them,” Ahmed Fahmy said of those enduring the difficult trek. “These people are following the footsteps of the Prophet (Mohammed). They could manage to get rides, but they exhaust themselves for the bigger reward with Allah.”

Fahmy, the general manager of the Cairo-based Islamic Huda TV, said this was his 11th hajj to complete. Despite feeling tired afterward, the reward of the pilgrimage is in the hardship one faces, he said.

“You feel obedient to Allah,” Fahmy said. “I feel like it’s something that is entirely for the pleasure of Allah.”

Red Crescent and civil defense helicopters have been overflying the area since the early morning.

“God is greatest, God is greatest, no God but Allah,” bellowed loudspeakers in Mina as pilgrims repeated the words.

The stay in Mina used to mark the most dangerous phase of the hajj for the Saudi authorities.

In past years, tents have been fire-proofed and gas canisters and cooking are now banned in the camps. The stoning area has also been expanded to avoid overcrowding.

Saudi authorities have built a five-level structure around the three sites, allowing for a smooth flow of pilgrims.

According to the authorities, 168,000 police officers and civil defense personnel were mobilized for the hajj this year.

For this year’s devil-stoning, the authorities organized specific times of day for each group of pilgrims to carry out the ritual.

Interior ministry spokesman Mansur al-Turki told AFP on Friday that so far “hajj has passed normally and in good manner,” with no incidents reported.

Health ministry spokesman Khaled Mirghalani also said “no outbreak” of any illness had been recorded at the pilgrimage.