Muslims began leaving Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, the final day of the hajj pilgrimage, marred this year by a deadly stampede and fears of a possible al-Qaida attack.
The bulk of the 2 million pilgrims started trekking out of Mina, where 251 people were crushed to death at the climax of the hajj on Sunday, for the nearby holy city of Mecca.
There they were to perform a final circling of Islam’s holiest shrine, the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure Muslims face in prayer. Most pilgrims will start heading home on Wednesday.
Police maintained their heavy presence around the holy sites as Saudi Arabia, which has been battling a surge in militant violence, tried to avert any new disaster after the stampede.
The crush came after some people collapsed during a devil-stoning ritual that has witnessed similar incidents in the past.
Most of the victims were Indonesians, Pakistanis and other Asians. In the ritual, Muslims stone three pillars they believe mark the spot where the devil appeared to Abraham.
This year’s hajj has also been overshadowed by fears of possible violence by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, blamed for a series of suicide attacks in the kingdom last year and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
Bin Laden has often called for jihad (holy struggle) against the United States and has deemed Saudi Arabia’s rulers infidels because of their ties to the West.
On Monday, Saudi rulers, whose authority largely stems from their custodianship of the holy sites, wrapped up the hajj by urging Muslims to fight terror.
“Terrorism is corruption on earth and seeks aggression, destruction and fighting God, his Prophet and Muslims. God abhors anarchists and forbids aggression and has laid down the most severe punishment for aggressors,” the Saudi leaders said.
“Such acts must be confronted and their falseness exposed so they do not sway the ignorant. They are results of sick minds and deviant ideologies alien to Islam’s laws and principles,” they said, adding that global action was needed to uproot terror.
Most pilgrims were unfazed by this week’s stampede and the security concerns and carried out their hajj in an elated mood.
“I pray to God that he will give every Muslim a chance to do this. It has been even better than I expected,” said Sudanese pilgrim Yassin Tahir, as he sheltered from the blazing midday sun beneath a makeshift tent.
Nigerian Mohammed Ahmed, who was on his third pilgrimage, said: “I thank God. It has been a great religious experience for me. It gets better and better every time.”
The annual five-day hajj is mandatory once in a lifetime for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. Pilgrims begin the ritual by retracing the footsteps of Prophet Mohammad 14 centuries ago.
There have been deadly stampedes many times during the often perilous “stoning of the devil” ritual and 14 pilgrims died in a similar crush last year. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were trampled to death in a pedestrian tunnel at Mecca.
Saudi Arabia has formed a high-level committee to plan a new layout for people to move through Mina and other holy sites. Senior clerics are set to meet on Thursday to discuss how to avoid such disasters.