JAMARAT, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 during the Muslim haj in Saudi Arabia have also reduced the risk of the deadly crowd crushes that have marred the pilgrimage's symbolic stoning of the devil in past years, worshippers said on Tuesday.
Before the pandemic, the annual haj rite typically drew more than two million Muslim faithful from around the world, with crowding regularly leading to dangerous incidents, most recently a 2015 stampede that killed hundreds.
But only a limited number of mask-clad pilgrims hurled pebbles at a wall in a symbolic renunciation of the devil - historically the haj's riskiest ceremony - during Tuesday's Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice).
For the second year running Saudi Arabia has banned worshippers from abroad and has allowed only 60,000 citizens and residents to participate in the haj.
"In the past it was overly crowded and people were jostling and scrambling at Jamarat and some were hurt," said Mohammed Salehi, a Syrian living in Saudi Arabia, referring to the site of the stoning ceremony.
"Now the place is very spacious."
Some pilgrims shaved their heads after casting stones.
SHADOW OF THE PANDEMIC
Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina and the peaceful organisation of the haj, which has in the past been afflicted by fires and riots as well as stampedes.
Multi-billion dollar government-funded upgrades to haj infrastructure since 2015, including erecting a three-storey bridge in Jamarat to ease congestion, have greatly reduced the frequency of such disasters.
And, in a speech marking Eid al-Adha, King Salman lauded measures taken by the kingdom to ensure a safe haj "in the shadow of this pandemic" including deploying technology to allow physical distancing.
With the coronavirus the main concern, authorities have restricted access to pilgrims aged 18 to 65, who have either been fully vaccinated or have recovered for the virus and do not suffer from chronic diseases.
This year, face-masked pilgrims clad in white robes signifying a state of purity walked in small groups, each at their own pace and socially distanced.
"They had pre-packed stones for us," said Pakistani pilgrim Urooj Qasmi. "I'm not scared. Everything is very clean and well organised."
Worshippers will return to Jamarat over the next two days before continuing onto Mecca to pray at the Grand Mosque at the end of haj, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.
(Reporting by Reuters multimedia team in Mecca; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Marwa Rashad; Editing by Joe Bavier)