Countries across Muslim world claim dead from hajj tragedy

Protests in Iran after crush near Mecca that left more than 700 pilgrims dead

Iranian women chant slogans at an anti-Saudi protest rally: they were among thousands of worshippers have marched in Tehran after Friday prayers to denounce the “incompetency” of Saudi Arabia’s handling the hajj. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP

Iranian women chant slogans at an anti-Saudi protest rally: they were among thousands of worshippers have marched in Tehran after Friday prayers to denounce the “incompetency” of Saudi Arabia’s handling the hajj. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP

 

The human crush that killed more than 700 pilgrims near Mecca echoed across the Muslim world on Friday as countries from Africa, Asia and Europe claimed citizens from among the dead and as some called for changes in pilgrimage procedures to ensure greater safety.

The roughly 2 million people performing the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, in Saudi Arabia proceeded with its final rituals. Saudi officials blamed disorderly pilgrims for the deaths while proceeding with an official investigation. The Saudi government said that 719 people were killed and more than 860 were hurt. It has yet to provide a breakdown of their nationalities, but a number of countries have announced their own tolls, highlighting the international scope of both the pilgrimage and the tragedy.

The Associated Press quoted an official from Pakistan as saying on Friday that 236 of its citizens were missing in the deadly stampede, which would make Pakistan the country with the highest toll so far. The authorities in Egypt reported 14 dead and 30 missing. India said 14 of its pilgrims had died in the stampede; Pakistan, seven; and Indonesia and Kenya, three each. Many of the dead are believed to be from African countries that have not yet announced their tolls.

The second-highest toll reported so far is from Iran, which said 131 of its citizens were killed. The country is locked in a fierce regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia that has taken the form of a proxy war in Yemen and elsewhere, and Iranian officials have used the deaths to lash out anew at Saudi leaders.

The stampede dominated Friday Prayer sessions in Tehran, with worshippers chanting for the death of the Saudi royal family. Leading prayer at Tehran University, one imam, Ayatollah Mahmoud Emami Kashani, said Saudi allegations that disorderly behavior by the pilgrims were “absurd”. The ayatollah, speaking before thousands, said that Saudi officials should be taken to court and tried for incompetence.

After prayers, many worshipers came out to demonstrate, urged along by text messages from the cellphone company calling for “spontaneous protests”. Waving black flags, they shouted, “the Saudi regime is friends of Satan” and “the security of pilgrims is no longer guaranteed.”

In Iraq, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is close to Tehran, said the episode was “proof of the incompetence of the organisers of the pilgrimage season,” although no Iraqis were known to be among the dead.

Criticism from other countries was more muted or lacking. The news media in India reported the accident and the deaths but without accusation, most likely because people are more focused on the visit of prime minister Narendra Modi to the United States and because mass tramplings occur regularly at religious festivals at home.

But in Turkey, Mehmet Ali Sahin, the vice chairman of the governing party, said the event could not be swept away as a result of fate, and accused the Saudi authorities of not taking sufficient precautions. “There cannot be an excuse for this,” he said, according to the Dogan News Agency. “Deaths have happened due to neglect. I hope these will not be experienced after this.”

Saudi Arabia’s oversight of the pilgrimage and of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a relatively new development in Islam, and some called for one of the religion’s most important rites to be administered by others.

“Our pain is so great. This should not continue like this,” wrote Ibrahim Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara, on Twitter. He appears to have deleted his comment. “Let them deliver the problem to us; let us solve it,” he wrote, apparently calling for a harking back to previous centuries when the pilgrimage was overseen by the Ottoman Empire. New York Times service