Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal said Sunday his country will stay in charge of the annual hajj pilgrimage, rejecting the idea of sharing the administration of the pilgrimage with other Muslim nations, the Associated Press (AP) reported. Prince Turki’s remarks come as Saudi Arabia faces mounting criticism after last month’s deadly stampede that killed 769 people and injured nearly 1,000.
Prince Turki told the AP that Riyadh considers the oversight of Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina and the annual hajj pilgrimage "a matter of sovereignty and privilege and service." Iran, which lost the largest number of pilgrims in the crush in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, has accused the Saudi kingdom of mismanagement and called for an independent body to oversee the hajj.
Prince Turki, a senior member of the Saudi royal family, told the AP: "The kingdom over the years, having gotten over the awful times when pilgrims couldn't guarantee their travels to the hajj in the old days and all the other factors of disease and crowds and housing and so on, we'll not give up that privilege or that distinction of being the servants of the two holy places."
"The people of Mecca are the ones who know best the territory of Mecca and you can't take that away from the people of Mecca," he added.
According to an AP count, at least 1,480 pilgrims died during the stampede on Sept. 24, the first day of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, which marks the end of hajj. Saudi Arabia normally receives some 3 million pilgrims a year. This year, the hajj drew around 2 million people from more than 180 countries.
Iran's death toll of 465 is the highest announced by any country so far, while Egypt's foreign ministry said Sunday the death toll of its citizens climbed from 165 to 177, with 64 people still missing.
A week after the deadly stampede, Iranian lawmakers called on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to manage the hajj and Iran's state prosecutor reportedly vowed to "pursue the trial of Al Saud" through international courts.
"I think they're trying to make political capital out of this, which is unfortunate," Turki reportedly said, adding that "human suffering should not be a tool for political shenanigans."
"It's a recurring record that is played over and over again by Iranian leaders."