MINA, Saudi Arabia – Shuffling slowly but smoothly, huge crowds of people hurled pebbles Thursday at pillars representing Satan, symbolically stoning the devil in a final ritual of their pilgrimage, while Muslims at the hajj (search) and around the world slaughtered sheep, cows and camels to mark the Feast of the Sacrifice (search) holiday.
Most of the 2 million pilgrims were expected to begin carrying out the ritual later in the day, historically one of the most dangerous because of stampedes as pilgrims elbow their way close to the pillars, then return to Mecca to circle the holy Kaaba in the final ritual of the pilgrimage. Others would wait or return in the coming days, drawing out their spiritual journey through Saturday.
As the hajj, which climaxed Wednesday with prayers on Mount Arafat (search), wound down, Muslims here and around the world began celebrating Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice. The holiday, the most important on the Islamic calendar, marks Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God.
It began with mosques — and in places the streets around them — filling up for dawn prayers and to hear holiday sermons. Later, families visited the graves of loved ones, gathered for big family lunches with the meat of freshly slaughtered animals, took children dressed up in new clothes to parks.
"I hope that next year the situation will have improved in Palestine and Iraq, so that their children can play, too," Samir Karim, a 38-year-old Syrian businessman, said at a Damascus park where he brought his four children.
Many holiday sermons on Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — issues dominating the Arab world. At a mosque in Beirut, Lebanon, Shiite Muslim cleric Sheik Ahmed Kourani blasted the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its "invasion of our lands ... seeking to humiliate us."
In Beirut and on the streets of the Egyptian capital of Cairo, extra police patrolled areas where people would gather to ensure smooth celebrations. Along the Nile in downtown Cairo, rows of police kept traffic moving as Egyptians flocked to waiting boats to spend the day enjoying music and a cruise to picnic sites.
Streets in Baghdad, Iraq, were quiet Thursday in sharp contrast to Wednesday's wave of bombings. Iraqi cleric Mohammed al-Sumeidi spoke of the capital's plight in his sermon at a Baghdad mosque: "Baghdad is the city of science, city of kings, city of believers. It has now become the city of explosions and hideout of criminals."
At the hajj, a pilgrimage required at least once in the lifetime of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, a million animals were expected to be slaughtered, with much of the meat going to the poor. Many pilgrims will pay $120 at the hajj for an animal to be slaughtered and its meat shipped to needy nations.
Unlike past years, pilgrims began the devil-stoning ritual just after midnight on Thursday, taking advantage of a religious edict permitting the stoning before dawn prayers. Saudi authorities have been looking at many improvements — including erecting wider and taller pillars and adding two new emergency exits — to avoid stampedes like those that killed 1,426 pilgrims in 1990 and 244 last year.
"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 forces — including traffic and crowd control — were patrolling the area Thursday to ensure the smooth flow of the ritual. Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said all was going smoothly as the day wore on: "Thanks be to God, no incidents so far."
Egyptian teacher Ahmed Mohei el-Din, 30, who also performed hajj last year, praised the new arrangements, saying "I could walk and throw my pebbles. ... This year was much easier."