BISHOPS have sent messages of sympathy to Muslim communities, after a stampede outside Mecca at the annual hajj left 717 people dead.
In the worst disaster at the pilgrimage site for 15 years, another 805 people were injured. It is understood that the crush occurred after two large groups arrived at the same time at a crossroads, on their way to the “stoning the devil” ritual, during which pebbles are thrown at three columns.
An estimated 25,000 British Muslims are among the two million Muslims currently making the hajj. There have as yet been no reports that any were among the fatalities or injured.
“This is a devastating tragedy that has affected communities across the world,” said the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, on Friday. “It will leave children without parents, brothers without sisters and households fractured.
“My hope and prayer for Birmingham is that friends and neighbours will support those who have been bereaved. We will continue to pray for the safety of pilgrims who remain on Hajj.
"This is an important spiritual journey made by an increasing number of Muslims each year - I hope urgent action is taken to ensure the safety of all who travel.”
The Bishop of Bedford, the Rt Revd Richard Atkinson, wrote to the Muslim community in the diocese of St Albans shortly after the news broke, expressing his “deep sorrow”.
He wrote: “Taking place on the holy day of Eid al-Adha, normally a day of celebration, we share the pain of this terrible tragedy all the more, recognising the great tradition of pilgrimage that is found in both our faiths, in which people seek to draw closer to God.
“Verily we belong to God, and to God we shall return.”
The Pope addressed the tragedy during vespers at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Thursday. Speaking before his homily, he expressed “my sentiments of closeness in the face of the tragedy that their people suffered today in Mecca. . . I unite myself with you all in prayer to God, our father, all powerful and merciful.”
In a television interview on Thursday, the Saudi health minister, Khaled al-Falith, said that “If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided.” He added that what had occurred was “God’s will”.
But Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the supreme leader of Iran, which to date is reporting the highest number of fatalities, spoke of “improper measures” and “mismanagement” and said that the government of Saudi Arabia “must accept the huge responsibility for this catastrophe”.
British Muslims have also been critical of the Saudi authorities.
“The Saudis say, after every disaster, ‘It is God’s will,’” Mohammed Jafari, an adviser to Haj and Umrah Travel, said on Radio 4’s Today on Friday. “It is not God’s will: it is man’s incompetence. Talking to pilgrims on the ground yesterday, the main reason for this accident was that the King, in his palace in Mina, was receiving dignitaries and for this reason they closed two entrances to where the stoning happened. . .
“You have a stream of people going in and if you stop that stream, and the population builds up, eventually there is going to be an accident.
“It is the fault of the Saudi government, because any time a prince comes along, they close the roads. They don’t think about the disaster waiting to happen.”
He was among many calling for improved safety procedures.
The Saudi authorities dispute this account. An investigation has been promised by King Salman.
Stampedes have killed pilgrims undertaking the hajj before. In 2006, 360 pilgrims died in a stampede in Mina, and in 1990 a stampede in a tunnel left 1426 dead. Earlier this month, 118 people were killed after a crane collapsed onto the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
“The thoughts and prayers of those of us who have been pilgrims, whichever faith we profess, are with our Muslim brothers and sisters today, mourning the loss of those killed and injured at the hajj,” said the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, on Friday.
“Special petitions” were being offered at Friday Jummah devotions in British mosques, he said. “I urge Christians to echo these prayers both in our homes and in our church intercessions this Sunday.”
The Church of England has issued a prayer “for those caught up in tragedy and disaster”.
Read the prayer here.
'You have fulfilled your obligation'
Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, an Imam in Leicester, and co-chair of the Christian Muslim Forum, spoke on Friday of the “shock and deep worry” caused by the news that “people who left their loved ones to go to a very special place, so enthusiastically and in such high spirits, have lost their lives in the most horrific circumstances.”
The Muslim belief that people who die while on the pilgrimage are forgiven by God and go to heaven “in some way helps to ease some of the pain of the loved ones that they leave behind,” he said.
Although there have been mass casualties on the hajj before, he said that the Saudi authorities had “tried their best to put things right and I am sure that will the case this time also.”
It was getting safer and easier with each passing year, he said, but increasing numbers posed a challenge: “In large crowds, sometimes it only takes one individual to trip over and fall and be unable to get up quickly enough and people immediately behind could in turn trip over. It could have a domino effect before people realise what is happening.”
His advice to people planning to undertake the pilgrimage was to listen to the instructions of hajj operators and avoid performing the rituals during peak times. This was the approach he and his wife took in 2010 — they had found it to be “very comfortable” — and was increasingly advised, he said, despite the fact that there are desired times to perform certain rituals.
He is also advising congregations that once they have made hajj they have fufilled their obligation and need not go again.
“If the repeat pilgrims were not to go again, that in itself would reduce the numbers significantly: enough to ease some of the congestion.”