The death toll from the Hajj pilgrimage rises into the hundreds

During Saudi Arabia's annual Hajj pilgrimage, one of the most important events in the Muslim calendar, at least 450 people died under a scorching sun while praying at holy sites around the holy city of Mecca.

In the midst of maximum temperatures that ranged from 108 Fahrenheit to 120, according to preliminary data, and crowds of people, many of whom fainted and needed medical attention. Pilgrims, some of whom have saved their lives for the hajj, spend days walking and sleeping in tents on their journey to Mecca, the holy city for Muslims. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and all physically or financially able Muslims are obliged to undertake the pilgrimage.

Indonesia has so far reported the most deaths, 199, and India 98. The countries said at this point they could not be sure whether the heat was the cause of all the deaths, however, relatives of the missing and of the deaths and tour operators reported said the heat was at least one contributing factor.

The death toll is expected to rise as neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, where many pilgrims come from, have released the death toll of their citizens.

Egypt is alarmed enough to have set up crisis centers to receive distress calls and coordinate the government's response as families prepare to face a high death toll as many people have been reported missing.

This year, more than 1.8 million Muslims have traveled to Mecca, 1.6 million of them from outside Saudi Arabia, according to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics.

Many complained that there were not enough cooling or water stations for all the pilgrims, and early reports said part of the problem was that many people had not officially registered for the pilgrimage, perhaps to avoid the high costs of hajj tour packages.

Many of the pilgrims are older people who have spent years saving to travel to the holy city. In the days leading up to and during the holy period of Eid al-Adha, pilgrims visit several holy sites, including touring the Kaaba and praying on Mount Arafat.

On a hajj Facebook group with more than 900,000 members, Egyptians posted appeals for their missing relatives. In one, a woman left a message for her mother: “Mom, it's me Rabab. I will wait for you outside King Khaled Bridge… See this post. I'm dying for you. You are the light of my eyes.”

Other countries reporting death tolls include Jordan, Tunisia and Pakistan.

Jordan's Foreign Ministry said 75 pilgrims had died “due to the intense heat wave.”

Tunisian Minister of Religious Affairs Ibrahim Chaibi said 49 Tunisians had died. The number is expected to increase as the number of pilgrims traveling on tourist visas becomes clearer, according to the Tunisian state news agency.

An Egyptian tour operator said that due to rising rates for hajj travel packages, as well as the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, many pilgrims have opted for tourist visas, which has put a burden on facilities set up in Mecca and surrounding holy sites.

The man, who spoke from Mecca, described the dire conditions of unregistered pilgrims. Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, he said unregistered pilgrims have no tents and are exposed to extreme heat. He said there were too few buses, so many pilgrims walked distances of more than 12 miles.

Hind Hassan, from Egypt, said his aunt Safa Tawab died during the hajj and that the tour company that organized her trip hid the news until the family found her name in a published list of the deceased online.

A friend who had accompanied Ms Tawab, 55, told the family that the pilgrimage was like “walking on the road to death because of the heat and lack of water”, Ms Hassan said.

Mahmoud Qassem, a member of Egypt's parliament, accused dubious tour operators of “exposing Egyptian pilgrims to deception and fraud by tour companies”, calling for a police investigation.

Islamic Relief, a global aid agency based in London, has been warning about the impact of climate change on the hajj since 2019.

“If global emissions were to continue in a business-as-usual scenario, temperatures in Mecca will rise to levels that the human body cannot withstand,” Shahin Ashraf, the organization's global advocacy chief, said in an emailed statement Friday.

In Pakistan, which lost at least 35 people, mourners gathered to honor their dead, according to official figures. Dozens of people in Chaman, a town in Balochistan province along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, offered condolences outside Abdul Bari Kakar's home. Mr Kakar, 49, ran a gas cylinder shop and had been saving money for months to make what was his third trip, his relatives said.

He chose to go “to pray for his grandfather, who died years ago,” said his son, Sardar Wali.

“We are saddened by his death,” he said, “but he was lucky to have died in the Holy Land.”

Hager Elhakeem contributed reporting from Luxor, Egypt, Christina Goldbaum and Zia ur-Rehman contributed from Pakistan, Muktita Suhartono from Indonesia e Judson Jones reported from Atlanta.

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