MINA, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – Two million Muslim pilgrims began leaving the holy city of Mecca on Monday, concluding the annual Haj during which Saudi leaders lashed out at extremism.
The pilgrimage passed off without any cases of Ebola or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) after Saudi authorities engaged thousands of health workers to make sure pilgrims were protected from two deadly viruses, the acting health minister said.
The faithful symbolically stoned the devil for a third day in the Mina Valley before many moved to nearby Mecca.
There, they were to circumambulate the holy cube-shaped Kaaba before returning home, having reached the spiritual peak of their lives.
The Haj, 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 Haj. “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 Haj attracted just over two million domestic and foreign believers, including almost 1.4 million from abroad, according to the official SPA news agency.
The numbers are roughly the same as last year.
The Haj 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 in Syria.
The militants 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 Muhammad (pbuh) 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 militants.
Authorities deployed thousands of health workers to protect pilgrims from Ebola and MERS.
They did not allow pilgrims to come from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the West African states hardest hit by Ebola.
“I am pleased to announce the Haj was free of all epidemic diseases,” acting health minister Adel Fakieh said in Mina.
There were also improved crowd-control measures, and an unprecedented crackdown on pilgrims without the required permits.
More than 70,000 security force personnel were assigned to assist the pilgrims, commander of the hi-tech Command and Control Centre for Haj 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.