February 22, 2002

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP)--Their faith reinforced by a day of prayers and meditation, Muslim pilgrims on Friday began the ritual of stoning the devil, rejecting his temptations with cries of ``Allahu Akbar,'' or ``God is Great.''

In perhaps the most animated part of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the pilgrims marched - some with the resolve of soldiers going into battle - to a 50-foot pillar of stones armed with tiny bags filled with small pebbles.

Once there, the estimated 2 million pilgrims took one at a time seven of the pebbles they had collected hours earlier and pelted the stone structure, which they approached in waves of thousands.

The ritual of stoning the devil, which symbolizes the rejection of Satan's temptations, would be repeated over the next two days, with two other similar structures also pelted with the same number of pebbles.

On a second consecutive day with temperatures above 35 Celsius (95 Fahrenheit), Friday's ritual was held under tight security with hundreds of policemen and many more believed to be operating undercover patrolling the proceedings on foot, while police helicopters hovered above.

Scores of rescue and medical teams were deployed at the site. Helmeted medical workers standing in the midst of the crowds near the pillar occasionally emerged carrying on stretchers pilgrims who fainted from the heat or fatigue and rushed them to one of the scores of ambulances parked nearby.

Some pilgrims, in defiance of religious edicts and warnings by Saudi authorities, got so carried away with Friday's ritual that they shouted obscenities at the pillar, blaming the devil's influence for their personal woes.

A few angry ones vented their frustration in a different way, hurling flip-flops or shoes at the pillar, an act that's supposedly meant to reflect the contempt in which they hold the devil.

``I had nothing to say to the devil except Allahu Akbar,'' said Ismail al-Sayed, 35. ``He's never bothered me,'' said the Egyptian construction worker as he shaved the head of his two-month-old son Mohammed.

Pilgrims, both male and female, are required to cut a lock of their hair after the stoning of the devil ritual, but many males prefer to shave off their heads.

By early evening, the entire area - including a 245-step staircase leading down to the stone structures and lined by beggars and hawkers - was littered with hair, empty water bottles and cans and rotting food leftovers.

Friday's ritual, which coincides with the first day of the Eid al-Adha, or the Muslim feast of sacrifice, comes a day after the pilgrims spent a day invoking the name of God and examining their conscience on nearby Mount Arafat, a plateau where the Muslim prophet spoke to his young nation for the last time before he died in 632 A.D.

They left Arafat soon after sunset to an area called Muzdalifah where they collected the pebbles and began arriving in Mina early Friday.

The three stone structures representing the devil are located in the valley of Mina, just outside the holy city of Mecca, birthplace of Islam and its seventh-century prophet.

``Oh pilgrims, be patient with each other. Don't push,'' one hajj official shouted in English using a bullhorn. Similar warnings came in several languages, including Arabic, Urdu and Turkish.

Last year, about 35 Muslims died in a stampede while performing the stoning of the devil ritual.

``Today, I prayed to God for the protection of all those that are needy in Afghanistan,'' said Dorkhan Khian, a 36-year-old Afghan who sells car spare parts in Medina, Saudi Arabia. ``I also prayed for my country to have a legitimate government like the Taliban.''

He was referring to the militant regime ousted by U.S.-backed forces late last year after it refused to hand over Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks. Many Muslims criticized the war in Afghanistan as an assault on Islam.

Able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj, at least once in a lifetime if they can afford it. It's perceived as a spiritual journey that cleanses the soul and wipes off the sins of those who perform it.

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