No fewer than two million people travel from all around the world to make the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca each year to fulfil the religious duty of hajj. This annual event is the largest yearly migration of people on the planet and demands unimaginable organisation from the Saudi government to ensure that the pilgrims are safe, and yet every year the government of Saudi Arabia is criticised for its failings rather than its successes. Over the past number of decades thousands of people have lost their lives in accidents of various kinds, and very little has been done by the government to change this appalling record. Earlier today we heard that over seven hundred people were crushed to death and more than eight hundred injured during a stampede a few miles outside of Mecca. This comes only weeks after a couple of hundred were killed when a crane collapsed into the Grand Mosque. News like this is always distressing and our hearts must go out to those who have lost their lives and those who have been bereaved, but we must call upon the Saudi government to accept responsibility for these unnecessary accidents and start taking steps to ensure the safety of all those who travel to Mecca to pray.
As news of the incident broke today various members of the government of Saudi Arabia were quick to go on air and lay blame at the feet of the victims for being undisciplined, and a number of their remarks were openly racist; blaming African pilgrims. Crowd control takes planning, and controlling crowds of the size of those who visit Mecca each year requires excellent planning. Stampedes happen, and this is not the fault of the people caught in the panic – no matter their ethnicity. Had the authorities in England blamed the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster there would have been a public outcry, but public criticism in Saudi Arabia is illegal. A number of Saudi activists and political campaigners have already voiced criticism of the government, but – for fear of arrest – have asked to remain anonymous. According to sources from within the country there have been repeated requests for improvements, but precious little has been done. Our prayers tomorrow – the Muslim day of prayer – will be for our Muslim sisters and brothers, especially those who have lost their lives. Our demand of the Saudi government is that it admits full responsibility; for the deaths, for the injuries suffered, and improve its organisation of the largest pilgrimage on Earth – from which it profits in no small measure.