Deaths reported in Mecca as Muslims complete last hajj ritual in extreme heat

Some pilgrims say once in a lifetime experience marred by ongoing Israel-Hamas war, defying Saudi warning against political comments during pilgrimage

Muslim pilgrims try to reach for free drinking water in Arafat, on the second day of the annual hajj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Muslim pilgrims try to reach for free drinking water in Arafat, on the second day of the annual hajj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — Pilgrims on Sunday performed the last major ritual of the hajj, the “stoning of the devil,” in western Saudi Arabia, as Muslims the world over celebrated the Eid al-Adha holiday.

Beginning at dawn, the 1.8 million Muslims undertaking the pilgrimage this year threw seven stones at each of three concrete walls symbolizing the devil in the Mina valley, located outside Islam’s holiest city of Mecca.

The ritual commemorates Abraham’s stoning of the devil at the three spots where it is said Satan tried to dissuade him from obeying God’s order to sacrifice his son.

The stoning ritual has been witness to multiple stampedes over the years, most recently in 2015 when up to 2,300 worshipers were killed in the worst hajj disaster.

The site has been revamped since then to streamline the movement of the large crowds.

Roads leading to the concrete walls were nevertheless packed early Sunday, with some pilgrims visibly struggling under the morning sun, and a number of deaths reported that are believed to be related to the heat.

Paramedics carry a muslim pilgrim for a medical check after he fell down due to a heat stroke at pillars, in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Those who arrived on foot later in the day, among them a number of elderly pilgrims, were especially vulnerable to heat as temperatures again soared well past 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

Deaths reported

At least two pilgrims were seen lying on the side of the road, sheltered by buildings and cars, a few hundred meters from the concrete walls.

“It’s very difficult, we can’t find transport. I can’t get up anymore,” said Ahmed Alsayed Omran, a 70-year-old Egyptian retiree, as he sat on the sidewalk.

Amman announced on Sunday that 14 Jordanian pilgrims had died and 17 were missing, while Iran reported five deaths, though neither country specified the cause.

Saudi Arabia has not provided any information on fatalities.

During last year’s hajj, at least 240 people — many from Indonesia — died, according to figures announced by various countries which also did not specify causes of death.

Muslim pilgrims 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, June 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

On Saturday, temperatures reached 46 degrees Celsius (114.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in Arafat, where pilgrims performed hours of outdoor prayers.

One treatment center in the area recorded 225 cases of heat stress and fatigue, the official Saudi Press Agency reported. That figure was not comprehensive.

Last year, more than 10,000 cases of heat-related illnesses were documented during the hajj, 10 percent of which were heat stroke, a health ministry spokesman told AFP.

“It was very, very hot,” Rohy Daiseca, a 60-year-old Gambian living in the United States, told AFP on Saturday night as pilgrims collected stones to throw. “Alhamdulillah [praise be to God], I put a lot of water on my head and it was OK.”

Sudanese men perform the morning prayer at a mosque in Gadaref on the first day of the Eid al-Adha holiday marking the end of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, on June 16, 2024. (AFP)

Feast of the sacrifice

Worshipers have tried to take the grueling conditions in stride, seizing what for many is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pray at Islam’s holiest shrines.

“I am so happy that I can’t describe my feelings,” said Amal Mahrouss, a 55-year-old woman from Egypt. “This place shows us that we are all equal, that there are no differences between Muslims around the world.”

One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj must be performed at least once by all Muslims with the means.

This year’s figure of 1.8 million pilgrims is similar to last year’s, and Saudi authorities said on Saturday that 1.6 million of them came from abroad.

The stoning ritual coincides with Eid al-Adha, or the feast of the sacrifice, which honors Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son before God offered a sheep instead.

A woman effected by the scorching heat rests as Muslim pilgrims arrive to perform the symbolic ‘stoning of the devil’ ritual as part of the hajj pilgrimage in Mina, near Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, on June 16, 2024. (Fadel Senna / AFP)

Worshipers typically slaughter a sheep and offer part of the meat to the needy.

This year’s hajj and Eid al-Adha holiday have been clouded by the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

“We don’t feel the Eid holiday because our brothers in Gaza are oppressed under the occupation,” said Najem Nawwar, a 43-year-old Egyptian pilgrim.

King Salman invited 2,000 Palestinians to the hajj at his own expense including relatives of Gazans who have sought refuge elsewhere.

But Saudi authorities have warned that no political slogans would be tolerated during the pilgrimage.

That has not stopped many worshippers from voicing solidarity with Palestinians.

“We pray for them… and for the liberation of Palestine, so that we have two holidays instead of one,” said Wadih Ali Khalifah, a 32-year-old Saudi pilgrim.

In a message to hajj pilgrims on Saturday, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “the ironclad resistance of Palestine and the patient, oppressed people of Gaza… must be fully supported in every way.”

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