Death toll tops 1,000 after Haj marked by extreme heat

Published June 20, 2024
Medical team members evacuate a Muslim pilgrim, affected by the soarching heat, at the base of Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal al-Rahma or Mount of Mercy, during the annual Haj pilgrimage on June 15. — AFP
Medical team members evacuate a Muslim pilgrim, affected by the soarching heat, at the base of Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal al-Rahma or Mount of Mercy, during the annual Haj pilgrimage on June 15. — AFP

The death toll from this year’s Haj has exceeded 1,000, an AFP tally said on Thursday, more than half of them unregistered worshippers who performed the pilgrimage in extreme heat in Saudi Arabia.

The new deaths reported on Thursday included 58 from Egypt, according to an Arab diplomat who provided a breakdown showing that of 658 Egyptians who passed away, 630 were unregistered pilgrims.

All told, around 10 countries have reported 1,081 deaths during the annual pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam which all Muslims with the means must complete at least once.

The figures have come via official statements or from diplomats working on their countries’ responses.

The Haj, whose timing is determined by the lunar Islamic calendar, fell again this year during the oven-like Saudi summer.

The national meteorological centre reported a high of 51.8 degree Celsius this week at Makkah’s Grand Mosque.

According to a Saudi study published last month, temperatures in the area are rising 0.4°C each decade.

Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims attempt to perform the Haj through irregular channels as they cannot afford the often costly official permits.

Saudi authorities reported clearing hundreds of thousands of unregistered pilgrims from Makkah this month, but it appears many still participated in the main rites which began last Friday.

This group was more vulnerable to the heat because, without official permits, they could not access air-conditioned spaces provided by Saudi authorities for the 1.8 million authorised pilgrims to cool down after hours of walking and praying outside.

“People were tired after being chased by security forces before Arafat day. They were exhausted,” one Arab diplomat told AFP on Thursday, referring to Saturday’s day-long outdoor prayers that marked the Haj’s climax.

The diplomat said the main cause of death among Egyptian pilgrims was the heat, which triggered complications related to high blood pressure and other issues.

Burials begin

Indonesia, which had around 240,000 pilgrims, raised its death toll to 183, according to the ministry of religious affairs, compared with 313 deaths recorded last year.

Deaths have also been confirmed by Malaysia, India, Jordan, Iran, Senegal, Tunisia, Sudan and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region. In many cases, authorities have not specified the cause.

Meanwhile, friends and family members have been searching for pilgrims who are still missing.

On Wednesday, they scoured hospitals and pleaded online for news, fearing the worst during the scorching temperatures.

Two diplomats told AFP on Thursday that Saudi authorities had begun the burial process for dead pilgrims, which involves cleaning up the bodies, putting them in white burial cloth and taking them to be interred in individual graves.

“The burial is done by the Saudi authorities. They have their own system so we just follow that,” said one diplomat, who pointed out that his country was working to notify loved ones of the dead as best it could.

The other diplomat said that given the number of fatalities, it would be impossible to notify many families ahead of time, especially in Egypt which accounts for so many of the dead.

‘Extreme danger’

Saudi Arabia has not provided information on fatalities, though it reported more than 2,700 cases of “heat exhaustion” on Sunday alone.

Last year, various countries reported more than 300 deaths during the Haj, mostly Indonesians.

The timing of the Haj moves back 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 Haj pilgrims will exceed the “extreme danger threshold” from 2047 to 2052 and 2079 to 2086, “with increasing frequency and intensity as the century progresses”.

Hosting the Haj is a source of prestige for the Saudi royal family, and King Salman’s official title includes the words “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, in Makkah and Madina.

The Haj has been the scene of a number of stampedes and fires over the years, most recently in 2015 when a stampede during the “stoning the devil” ritual in Mina killed up to 2,300 people in the event’s mostly deadly disaster.

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