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Pilgrim Deaths in Mecca Put Spotlight on Underworld Hajj Industry

WorldPilgrim Deaths in Mecca Put Spotlight on Underworld Hajj Industry

The deaths of more than a thousand pilgrims in Saudi Arabia for the hajj have put a spotlight on an underworld of illicit tour operators, smugglers and swindlers who profit off Muslims desperate to meet their religious duty to travel to Mecca.

While registered pilgrims are transported around the shrines in air-conditioned buses and rest in air-conditioned tents, undocumented ones are often exposed to the elements, making them more vulnerable to extreme heat. Some pilgrims this year described watching people faint and passing bodies in the street as temperatures hit 120 degrees or higher.

On Sunday, in an interview on state television, the Saudi health minister, Fahd al-Jalajel, said that 83 percent of the more than 1,300 deaths occurred among pilgrims who had not had official permits.

“The rise in temperatures during the hajj season represented a big challenge this year,” he said. “Unfortunately — and this is painful for all of us — those who didn’t have hajj permits walked long distances under the sun.”

Mr. al-Jalajel’s remarks came after days of silence from the Saudi authorities over the fatalities during the hajj, an arduous and deeply spiritual ritual that capable Muslims are encouraged to perform in their lifetimes.

With nearly two million pilgrims participating each year, many of them elderly or ailing, it is not unusual for people to die from heat stress, illness or chronic disease, and Saudi Arabia does not regularly report those statistics. So it is unclear if the number of deaths this year was unusual. Last year, 774 pilgrims died from Indonesia alone, and in 1985, more than 1,700 people died around the holy sites, most of them from heat stress, a study at the time found.

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