14 pilgrims die of heat stroke as Muslim Eid al-Adha celebrations begin

MINA, Saudi Arabia – Crowds of pilgrims began a symbolic stoning of the devil in Saudi Arabia on Sunday under the scorching summer heat. The ritual marks the final days of the hajj, or Islamic pilgrimage, and the start of the Eid al-Adha celebrations for Muslims around the world.

The stoning is one of the last rituals of the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. It came a day after more than 1.8 million pilgrims converged on a holy hill known as Mount Arafat, outside the holy city of Mecca, as Muslim pilgrims visit to perform the annual five-day rituals of the hajj.

According to the Jordanian state news agency Petra, fourteen Jordanian pilgrims died of heatstroke during the hajj. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had worked with Saudi authorities to bury the dead in Saudi Arabia or transfer them to Jordan.

Mohammed Al-Abdulaali, spokesman for the Saudi Health Ministry, told reporters that more than 2,760 pilgrims suffered from sunstroke and heat stress on Sunday alone. He said these numbers are likely to increase and urged attendees to avoid the sun and drink water during peak hours. “Heat stress is the biggest challenge,” he said.

The pilgrims left Mount Arafat on Saturday evening to spend their night at a nearby site known as Muzdalifa, where they collected pebbles to use in the symbolic stoning of pillars representing the devil.

The pillars are located at another holy site in Mecca called Mina, where Muslims believe Ibrahim’s faith was tested when God commanded him to sacrifice his only son Ismail. Ibrahim was willing to submit to the command, but then God stayed his hand and spared his son. In the Christian and Jewish versions of the story, Abraham is ordered to kill his other son, Isaac.

On Sunday morning, crowds went on foot to the stoning areas. Some were seen pushing disabled pilgrims in wheelchairs along a multi-lane road leading to the complex housing the large pillars. Most of the pilgrims were seen sweltering and carrying parasols to protect them from the scorching summer sun.

An Associated Press reporter saw many pilgrims, especially the elderly, collapse on the way to the pillars because of the scorching heat. Security forces and medics were deployed to help, with those who fainted being taken on stretchers out of the heat to ambulances or field hospitals. As temperatures rose around noon, more people needed medical attention. According to Saudi meteorological authorities, the heat had reached 116.6 degrees in Mecca and 114.8 degrees in Mina.

Despite the stifling heat, many pilgrims were happy to complete their pilgrimage.

“Thank God (the process) was joyful and good,” said Abdel-Moaty Abu Ghoneima, an Egyptian pilgrim. “No one wants more than this.”

Many pilgrims will spend up to three days in Mina, each throwing seven pebbles at three pillars in a ritual to symbolize the rejection of evil and sin.

While in Mina, they will visit Makkah to perform their ‘tawaf’ or circumambulation, which involves circling counter-clockwise around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque seven times. Then another circumambulation, the Farewell Tawaf, will mark the end of the Hajj as pilgrims prepare to leave the holy city.

The rituals coincide with the four-day Eid al-Adha, which means ‘Festival of Sacrifice’, during which Muslims commemorate Ibrahim’s test of faith with financial means by slaughtering livestock and animals and distributing the meat to the poor.

Most countries celebrated Eid al-Adha on Sunday. Others, like Indonesia, will celebrate on Monday.

President Joe Biden wished Muslims around the world a blessed Eid al-Adha in a statement, noting that the holiday is a time of prayer, reflection and sacrifice.

“The Hajj and Eid al-Adha remind us of our equality before God and the importance of community and charity – values ​​that speak directly to the American character,” the report said. “The United States is blessed to be home to millions of American Muslims who enrich our nation in countless ways, from medicine to technology, education, public service, the arts and so much more.”

Once the Hajj is over, men are expected to shave their heads and remove the shroud-like white garments worn during the pilgrimage, and women are expected to cut off a lock of hair as a sign of renewal and rebirth.

Most pilgrims then leave Mecca and head to the city of Medina, about 210 miles away, to pray in the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed, the Holy Chamber. The tomb is part of the Prophet’s Mosque, one of the three holiest sites in Islam, along with the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

All Muslims are required to perform the Hajj once in their lives, if they are physically and financially able to do so. Many wealthy Muslims make the pilgrimage more than once. The rituals largely commemorate the stories of Prophet Ibrahim and his son, Prophet Ismail, Ismail’s mother Hajar and Prophet Mohammed, according to the Quran, Islam’s holy book.

More than 1.83 million Muslims performed the Hajj in 2024, Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq bin Fawzan al-Rabiah said in a briefing, slightly lower than last year’s figures when 1.84 million performed the rituals.

Most Hajj rituals are held outdoors with little or no shade. It is set for the second week of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar, so the time of year varies. And this year the pilgrimage took place in the scorching summer of Saudi Arabia.

Palestinians gather at the destroyed mosque in Gaza

This year’s hajj took place against the backdrop of the devastating war between Israel and Hamas, which has brought the Middle East to the brink of regional conflict.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were unable to travel to Mecca for the hajj this year due to the closure of the Rafah crossing in May, as Israel expanded its ground offensive to the city on the border with Egypt. And they will no longer be able to celebrate Eid al-Adha as they did in previous years.

Dozens of Palestinians gathered at a destroyed mosque in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis on Sunday morning to perform Eid prayers. They were surrounded by rubble and debris from collapsed houses. In the nearby town of Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, Muslims held prayers in a school building that had been converted into a shelter. Some, including women and children, went to cemeteries to visit the graves of loved ones.

“Today, after the ninth month, more than 37,000 martyrs, more than 87,000 injured and hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed,” Abdulhalim Abu Samra, a displaced Palestinian, told the AP after completing prayers in Khan Younis. “Our people live in difficult conditions.”

Palestinians also gathered in the occupied West Bank for Eid prayers in Ramallah, the seat of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. “We are suffering greatly and going through difficult moments with (what is happening to) our brothers in Gaza,” said Mahmoud Mohana, a mosque imam.

In Sanaa, the Houthi-held capital of Yemen, and in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, Muslims celebrated and prayed for the war-weary Palestinians in Gaza.

“We are happy because of Eid, but our hearts are filled with fear when we see our brothers in Palestine,” said Bashar al-Mashhadani, imam of al-Gilani Mosque in Baghdad. “(We) urge the Arab and Muslim countries to support them and stand with them in this ordeal.”

In Lebanon, where the militant Hezbollah group has traded attacks with Israel almost daily, a steady stream of visitors made their way early Sunday morning to the Palestinian Martyrs’ Cemetery near the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, carrying flowers and jugs of water for the graves of their loved ones, a annual tradition on the first day of Eid.

Copyright 2024 NPR