Two million Muslim pilgrims ending annual hajj
MINA, Saudi Arabia - Agence France-Presse
An aerial view shows the Grand mosque and the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca, on October 5, 2014. AFP PhotoTwo million Muslim pilgrims begin leaving the holy city of Mecca on Oct. 6, concluding the annual hajj during which Saudi leaders lashed out at Islamic extremism.
The faithful will symbolically stone the devil for a third day in the Mina Valley before many move to nearby Mecca.
There, they will circumambulate the holy cube-shaped Kaaba before returning home having reached the spiritual peak of their lives.
The hajj, one of the world's largest religious festivals, this year drew believers from 163 nations.
Some of the faithful will remain until Tuesday, officially the last day of hajj.
"I wish I could always stay here and not return home," said an Indonesian pilgrim who gave her name only as Umm Mohammed, 58, speaking in Arabic.
This year's hajj attracted just over two million domestic and foreign believers, including almost 1.4 million from abroad, according to the official SPA news agency.
These numbers are roughly the same as last year.
The hajj drew a cross-section of humanity, from presidents to commoners, including a wounded Syrian rebel war veteran.
The pilgrimage came as Saudi Arabia and four other Arab states took part in or gave support to US-led air strikes against Islamic State group jihadists in Syria.
The Sunni extremists have seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, declaring a "caliphate" where they have been accused of carrying out widespread atrocities, including mass executions, crucifixions and beheadings, and forcing women into slavery.
Saudi King Abdullah told leaders of groups of pilgrims from Islamic countries on Sunday that extremism must be eradicated because it "has nothing to do with Islam".
On Friday the Sunni kingdom's top cleric, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, said Muslim leaders must strike the enemies of Islam with "an iron hand".
He made the comments during the peak of hajj from the holy site of Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have given his final sermon 14 centuries ago.
Some pilgrims denounced atrocities by the Islamic State group but many also expressed concerns about the US-led air war against the extremists.
This year's hajj came with authorities taking precautions against infectious diseases.
But no cases of the deadly MERS or Ebola viruses have been recorded among the pilgrims, SPA quoted a health ministry official as saying on Saturday.
There were also improved crowd-control measures, and an unprecedented crackdown on pilgrims without the required permits.
More than 70,000 members of the security forces were deployed to assist the pilgrims, commander of the hi-tech Command and Control Centre for Hajj Security, Major General Abdullah al-Zahrani, told reporters in Mina on Sunday.
The centre features a network of screens linked to thousands of surveillance cameras across the holy sites.
Sensors count the flow of pilgrims moving through a four-storey structure for the devil-stoning ritual.
"There were no security gaps during hajj," said Zahrani, who added that more than 380,000 people without permits were sent back after they attempted to join the pilgrimage.
The permits are part of safety measures for such a large gathering with massive logistical challenges.
Roads in Arafat and Mina, usually blocked by illegal pilgrims sleeping on the streets, were clear this year, AFP reporters observed.
"No camping on roads, hajji. Move on," security men in Mina reminded pilgrims caught resting in the open.
Saudi authorities have spent billions of dollars on safety projects for the hajj, which has been almost incident-free in recent years after earlier stampedes and fires.
A rockslide in Mina on Sunday left 14 pilgrims with "medium and minor" injuries, SPA reported, but no major trouble was reported during this year's hajj which began on Thursday.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which all able Muslims must perform once in their life if they have the means to do so.