The imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque called on Arabs and Muslims on Friday to take "practical and urgent" steps to stop bloodshed in Syria that has killed some 30,000 people, and urged world states to assume their moral responsibility towards the conflict.
Muslims from around the world on Friday celebrated Eid al-Adha, which marks the annual Muslim Haj pilgrimage that this year attracted more than three million people from nearly 190 countries.
Saudi officials said the Haj, including the ritual stoning of the devil which has in the past led to hundreds of deaths in stampedes, had been successful with no major accidents. This year's Haj took place against a backdrop of divisions among Muslims, with Shi'ite Iran and US-allied Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar backing opposing sides in Syria's civil war.
Saudi Arabia has led Arab efforts to isolate President Bashar al-Assad's government, and has supported the rebels with money and logistics. "The world should bear responsibility for this prolonged and painful disaster (in Syria) and the responsibility is greater for the Arabs and Muslims who should call on each other to support the oppressed against the oppressor," said Sheik Saleh Mohammed al-Taleb in his sermon during Eid prayers.
"The solution should be practical and urgent because the oppressor becomes even more fierce as the days pass," he added.
Assad's forces announced a conditional Eid ceasefire on Thursday evening, responding to an appeal by international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, though by Friday it had begun to unravel with fighting breaking out in various places.
"The world should take moral and legal responsibility against the massacres and the oppression that the Syrian people are subjected to as well as the continuing violations in Palestine," said Taleb, one of the most senior clerics in the kingdom. "The war and destruction should be stopped and higher interests should be ahead of personal interests in order to stop the spilling of Muslims' blood," he added.
In his Haj message to pilgrims on Thursday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that bloodshed in Syria could spill across borders in the Middle East. Iran accuses Turkey and Gulf Arab states of fuelling the Syrian conflict by supporting rebels. The Syrian crisis made its presence felt at Mount Arafat on Thursday when some Syrians held up rebel flags despite a call by Saudi Arabia's grand mufti to avoid raising "national and factional slogans". Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki renewed his country's commitment to keep Haj a strictly religious gathering.
Millions of pilgrims hurled pebbles on Friday at a wall symbolising Satan in Mina before heading to the Grand Mosque to circle the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure Muslims must face five times a day during prayers. Pilgrims will spend two to three days at Mina, a valley in eastern Mecca, for three more rounds of the ritual stoning.
Mina is a giant tent city that is used for less than a week a year during the Haj. Those who are unable to afford staying at the costly, fire-resistant tents pitched small tents or laid mats on the sides of the streets and mountain slopes. The streets of Mina were littered with human hair after pilgrims cut their hair after the first stoning on Friday.
"The first thing I did was pray for God to help us get rid of him (President Assad)," Ahmed, a Syrian who lives in Saudi Arabia, said of his prayers during the ritual stoning. Khaled al-Habashi, director of the Saudi Red Crescent in Mecca, said on Friday that 18 people were slightly injured and treated on the spot after a minor stampede took place on Thursday.
"They were mostly older men who suffered from exhaustion," he said, adding that a woman also had a miscarriage in the same incident. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and its ruling monarchy derives much of its legitimacy from its guardianship of Islam's holiest sites.
(Editing by Sami Aboudi and Jon Hemming)