Amr Nabil  /  AP
A pilgrim prays Wednesday at Jabal Al Rahma holy mountain, on Mount Arafat outside Mecca, Saudi Arabia.  More than two million pilgrims are expected to join the hajj, required at least once for every able bodied Muslim who can afford it.
updated 1/20/2005 10:47:40 PM ET 2005-01-21T03:47:40

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 hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Across 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.

Palestinians said their celebrations were marred by a fourth year of fighting with Israelis. Israeli troops raided the West Bank city of Nablus overnight Wednesday, demolishing three buildings allegedly housing militants and arresting 13 Palestinians.

Iraq war invoked by clerics
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.”

Slideshow: Hajj pilgrimage

In Iraq, the streets of Baghdad were quiet Thursday, in sharp contrast to five bombings Wednesday.

“Baghdad is the city of science, city of kings, city of believers. It has now become the city of explosions and hideout of criminals,” cleric Mohammed al-Sumeidi said in his sermon.

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.

“I’m enjoying everything, but I’m wondering what the ’eid’ is like for people of our age in Iraq and Palestine,” said Fatma Abu Zeid, 16. “Are they happy as we are?”

View from West Bank
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.

“What happened during the (Israeli) military operation really hurt us,” Gilani said.

However, a Palestinian girl in the same city, Samar Awad, 14, said her father had given her money for new clothes, and she was not going to let the Israeli military spoil her mood.

Amr Nabil  /  AP
An aerial view showing tens of thousands of pilgrims praying Wednesday at Mount Arafat outside Mecca, Saudi Arabia. More than 2 million pilgrims are headed to Arafat for the annual pilgrimage, one of the most sacred duties of the Muslim faith.

“I don’t see any Israeli jeeps coming, but if they come, I won’t be surprised and I will continue to celebrate because I see them all the time,” Awad said.

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 the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 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 worshippers. He accused the militants of “causing instability, shaking security, and dividing the unity of the (Muslim) community.”

Safety improvements
In Mina, many pilgrims began the day’s ritual early Thursday morning, 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 two new emergency exits.

“We were worried about the crowds, and we had heard some real horror stories, so we feel much better that we made it here early,” said Ahmed Sodikin, 56, from Bandung, Indonesia, who came well before dawn.

About 10,000 police officers patrolled the area to ensure a smooth flow of pilgrims.

Egyptian teacher Ahmed Mohei el-Din, 30, who performed the pilgrimage last year, praised the new arrangement.

“I could walk and throw my pebbles. ... This year was much easier,” he said.

Ritual slaughter
After the stoning, most pilgrims walked directly 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 7th century prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon in A.D. 632, three months before his death.

After the devil-stoning ritual, which will be performed through Saturday this year, pilgrims will shave their heads or clip a lock of hair, and then return to Mecca for a final circling of the Kaaba.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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