Jordanian deaths at Hajj expose ‘illegal’ pilgrimage schemes

A total of 19 people died at hajj as a result of heatstroke. [Getty]

Fourteen Jordanians who died of heatstroke while performing the holy hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, performed the religious rite outside official regulations, Jordanian officials claimed on Sunday.

Five Iranian pilgrims were also killed during the pilgrimage, and 17 others went missing.

“There are no injuries among any of the official Jordanian pilgrims. A number of pilgrims came on tourist visas which didn’t allow them to go on the hajj,” Jordan’s Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, Mohammed al-Khalayleh, told local media on Sunday.

Al-Khalyleh said that the ministry had previously warned pilgrims that attempting to undertake the religious pilgrimage through irregular routes would be “extremely dangerous.” The last two weeks has seen a severe heat wave across the Middle East, with temperatures on Monday forecasted to reach 51.8 degrees Celsius (125 Fahrenheit) in Mecca.

Performing hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is considered a religious duty. The Saudi government tightly regulates the number of hajj visas each year to prevent overcrowding.

The cost of undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca has risen considerably over the years and can range from anywhere from US$3,000 to $10,000 – an exorbitant sum for Jordanians whose average annual salary is about US$10,000.

Companies offering to help would-be pilgrims skirt the cost of performing hajj by setting up unofficial or illegal pilgrimages to Mecca have sprung up across Jordan.

An investigation by Al-Araby al-Jadeed, the sister-publication of The New Arab, found several companies based in Jordan that facilitated illegal hajj trips for nearly half the price.

The companies helped Jordanians go to Mecca without hajj visas through various schemes, including driving from Amman and dropping off pilgrims a few kilometres from Mecca so that they could walk to the holy city undetected.

Saudi authorities take several measures to guard against illegal hajj-goers, such as checking the documents of bus passengers heading to Mecca, and sealing the doors of the bus with wax until they reach their destination,

“The attempt of thousands of Jordanian pilgrims to perform the hajj without a permit did not begin for the first time this hajj season,” Bilal Rubin, the former head of the religious tourism committee of the Jordanian travel and tourism agents’ association told Al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Rubin added that the number of Jordanians performing the hajj illegally has sharply increased since summer 2023, after Saudi Arabia eased restrictions on visitor visas for Jordanians.

The strenuous conditions of the religious pilgrimage, particularly when performed without official supervision, has led officials to warn pilgrims against illegal hajj trips.

“The ministry of Awqaf warned earlier and on more than one occasion that Hajj without a permit may entail risks, especially exposure to sun stroke, as these pilgrims do not have access to services in Saudi Arabia,” al-Khalayleh said.

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