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Muslim pilgrims gather at the top of the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat, during the annual Hajj pilgrimage on 15 June
Pillars of Islam

Saudi Arabia says 1,301 people died during hajj pilgrimage to Mecca

Arab diplomats have said the cause of death in most cases was heat-related.

SAUDI ARABIA HAS said more than 1,300 people died during the hajj pilgrimage which took place during intense heat, and that most of the deceased did not have official permits.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam that all Muslims with the means must complete at least once in their lives.

“Regrettably, the number of mortalities reached 1,301, with 83% being unauthorised to perform hajj and having walked long distances under direct sunlight, without adequate shelter or comfort,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

The dead came from more than 10 countries stretching from the United States to Indonesia, and some governments are continuing to update their totals.

Arab diplomats last week said that Egyptians accounted for 658 deaths – 630 of them unregistered pilgrims.

The diplomats said the cause of death in most cases was heat-related.

file-muslim-pilgrims-circumambulate-the-kaaba-the-cubic-building-at-the-grand-mosque-during-the-annual-hajj-pilgrimage-in-mecca-saudi-arabia-monday-june-17-2024-more-than-1000-people-died-du Part of the hajj pilgrimage involves walking around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque. Image taken 17 June, 2024 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Temperatures in Mecca this year climbed as high as 51.8 degrees Celsius, according to Saudi Arabia’s national meteorological centre.

Riyadh had not publicly commented on the deaths or provided its own toll until yesterday.

On Friday, however, a senior Saudi official gave a partial toll of 577 deaths for the two busiest days of hajj.

Those days were 15 June, when pilgrims gathered for hours of prayers in the blazing sun on Mount Arafat, and 16 June, when they participated in the “stoning of the devil” ritual in Mina.

muslim-pilgrims-arrive-to-cast-stones-at-pillars-in-the-symbolic-stoning-of-the-devil-the-last-rite-of-the-annual-hajj-in-mina-near-the-holy-city-of-mecca-saudi-arabia-sunday-june-16-2024-mass Muslim pilgrims arrive to cast stones at pillars in the symbolic stoning of the devil in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, on 16 June Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The official also defended Riyadh’s response, saying: “The state did not fail, but there was a misjudgement on the part of people who did not appreciate the risks.”

‘Heat stress’

The Saudi health minister, Fahd Al-Jalajel, yesterday described management of the hajj this year as “successful”, SPA reported.

He said the health system “provided more than 465,000 specialised treatment services, including 141,000 services to those who didn’t obtain official authorisation to perform hajj,” according to SPA, which summarised an interview he gave to the state-affiliated Al-Ekhbariya channel.

Jalajel did not specify how many deaths Saudi officials attributed to heat.

file-muslim-pilgrims-use-umbrellas-to-shield-themselves-from-the-sun-as-they-arrive-to-cast-stones-at-pillars-in-the-symbolic-stoning-of-the-devil-the-last-rite-of-the-annual-hajj-in-mina-near-th Muslim pilgrims shield themselves from the sun as they arrive to cast stones at pillars in the symbolic stoning of the devil on 18 June Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“The health system addressed numerous cases of heat stress this year, with some individuals still under care,” SPA reported.

“Among the deceased were several elderly and chronically ill individuals.”

Saudi officials have said 1.8 million pilgrims took part this year, a similar number to last year, and that 1.6 million came from abroad.

For the past several years the mainly outdoor rituals have fallen during the sweltering Saudi summer.

The timing of the hajj moves forward about 11 days each year in the Gregorian calendar, meaning that next year it will take place earlier in June, potentially in cooler conditions.

A 2019 study by the journal Geophysical Research Letters said because of climate change, heat stress for hajj pilgrims will exceed the “extreme danger threshold” from 2047 to 2052 and 2079 to 2086, “with increasing frequency and intensity as the century progresses”.

Off-the-books hajj

Hajj permits are allocated to countries on a quota system and distributed to individuals by lottery.

Even for those who can obtain them, the steep costs spur many to attempt the hajj without a permit, though they risk arrest and deportation if caught.

Saudi authorities said before the hajj that they had cleared hundreds of thousands of unregistered pilgrims from Mecca.

But the Saudi official who spoke on Friday said around 400,000 unregistered pilgrims took part, and that “almost all of them (were) from one nationality”, an apparent reference to Egypt.

mecca-saudi-arabia-16th-june-2024-various-photos-of-the-great-mosque-of-mecca-saudi-arabia-seen-at-the-end-of-the-pilgrimage-season-around-aid-el-adha-on-june-16-2024-photo-by-balkis-press Muslim pilgrims before the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, on 16 June Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

On Saturday, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly ordered 16 tourism companies stripped of their licences and referred their managers to the public prosecutor over illegal pilgrimages to Mecca, Egypt’s cabinet said.

It said the rise in the number of deaths of unregistered Egyptian pilgrims stemmed from some companies which “organised the hajj programmes using a personal visit visa, which prevents its holders from entering Mecca” via official channels.

Unregistered pilgrims in many cases did not have access to amenities meant to make the pilgrimage more bearable, including air-conditioned tents.

Unregistered Egyptian pilgrims said last week that in some cases they struggled to access hospitals or hail ambulances for loved ones, some of whom ended up dying.

© AFP 2024