Written by 02:34 World

Pilgrim Deaths in Mecca Put Spotlight on Underworld Hajj Industry

More than 1,300 people died making the Islamic pilgrimage of hajj in Saudi Arabia this month, the vast majority of whom the Saudi government said did not have permits. Many walked for miles in scorching heat after paying thousands of dollars to illicit or fraudulent tour operators.

While pilgrims with permits are transported around the holy city of Mecca in air-conditioned buses and rest in air-conditioned tents, unregistered ones are often exposed to the elements. In recent days, as temperatures surpassed 120 degrees, some pilgrims described watching people faint and passing bodies in the street.

On Sunday, in an interview on state television, the Saudi health minister, Fahd al-Jalajel, said that 83 percent of the 1,301 reported deaths involved pilgrims who lacked permits.

“The rise in temperatures during the hajj season represented a big challenge this year,” he said. “Unfortunately — and this is painful for all of us — those who didn’t have hajj permits walked long distances under the sun.”

Mr. al-Jalajel’s remarks came after days of silence from the Saudi government over the fatalities during the hajj, an arduous and deeply spiritual ritual that Muslims are encouraged to perform once in their lifetimes if they are physically and financially able.

With nearly two million participating each year, it is not unusual for pilgrims to die from heat stress, illness or chronic disease. It is unclear if the number of deaths this year was higher than usual, because Saudi Arabia does not regularly report those statistics. Last year, 774 pilgrims died from Indonesia alone, and in 1985, more than 1,700 people died around the holy sites, most of them from heat stress, a study at the time found.

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Last modified: 25 June 2024
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