A stampede has left at least 717 people dead during Saudi Arabia’s yearly religious pilgrimage. The deaths are the latest case of bad press for a country whose human rights record has been on display this week after Saudi Arabia was inexplicably named to a UN Human Rights panel while simultaneously sentencing a man arrested as a minor to death by beheading and crucifixion. Two weeks earlier, over 100 people were killed when a crane collapsed outside Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
Undergoing the pilgrimage, or ‘Hajj’ in Arabic, is one of the five central pillars required of all Muslims who are wealthy enough to perform the ritual. During Hajj, pilgrims march to Mecca from Medina — retracing the steps of the prophet Mohammad in 630 CE. Two million people attended last year.
Saudi officials have been blamed for causing the stampede, which is the sixth in 25 years and the second most deadly in that time. The largest death toll came in 1990 when more than 1400 pilgrims died. Officials have nonetheless sought to deflect the blame.
Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the head of the central Hajj committee, levelled a thinly-veiled racist attack at black pilgrims when he pitted the stampede on “some pilgrims with African nationalities,” the Independent reported.
The stampede was caused by overcrowding that resulted in panic after authorities closed two exits on a trail that led from one air-conditioned tent to another, the New York Times reported. Pilgrims told government employee Khalid Saleh that the exits were closed so “V.I.P. cars could pass.”
Shortly after the tragic incident, authorities blocked reporters from investigating the accident site. Saudi Arabia has come under intense criticism from regional rival Iran, who lost 131 nationals in the stampede.
“The Saudi government should accept its responsibility in this bitter incident,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said in a statement on Thursday. “We should not overlook that mismanagement and inappropriate conducts caused this disaster.”
“Hundreds of demonstrators protested in the Iranian capital, chanting ‘Death to the Saudi dynasty’,” Reuters reported.
Saudi authorities and pro-government media however remained defiant in the face of blame. They skirted responsibility by citing the belief that whoever dies while performing Hajj goes straight to heaven, the Times reported.