Pope Francis is praying vespers, the formal term for evening prayers, at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (Sept. 24)
AP

King Salman of Saudi Arabia ordered a review of safety procedures for the hajj pilgrimage, after at least 717 people were killed and more than 850 injured in the deadliest disaster to hit the religious event in 25 years.

Hundreds of thousands of people had gathered in Mina, about 3 miles from Mecca — Islam’s holiest city — for the symbolic “stoning of the devil” when the tragedy happened Thursday.

The ritual where pebbles are thrown against three stone pillars representing the devil, is the last major rite of the pilgrimage.The dead include at least 14 Indians and four people from Turkey, authorities said.

Thursday, King Salman said he asked for a review of “all existing plans and arrangements … to improve the level of organization and management of the movement” of pilgrims at the hajj, the Associated Press reported.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Naif bin Abdulaziz also ordered that a special high-level investigative committee be formed and its findings submitted to King Salman.

At a news conference Thursday, the Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, told Al Arabiya and other news sites that a street “witnessed unprecedented high number of pilgrims” compared to previous years. He said groups of pilgrims on buses were allowed to descend onto the pathways that lead to the Jamaraat Bridge before others had cleared the area.

Saudi health minister Khalid al-Falih blamed the tragedy on “undisciplined” pilgrims who hadn’t followed instructions, but witnesses blamed the Saudi authorities, and said police weren’t properly trained and don’t have the language skills to communicate with the mainly foreign pilgrims, according to Agence France-Presse.

Ahmed Abu Bakr, 45, a Libyan who escaped the crush with his mother, told the news agency: “There was crowding. The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims’ camp, leaving only one. I saw dead bodies in front of me and injuries and suffocation. We removed the victims with the police.”

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Abu Bakr said police at the scene seemed to be inexperienced. “They don’t even know the roads and the places around here,” AFP reported.

Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of an Islamic heritage research foundation based in Mecca, added: “They (police) don’t have a clue how to engage with these people,” according to AFP. “There’s no crowd control.”

Thursday’s stampede came less than two weeks after a crane collapsed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, killing at least 111 people and injuring nearly 400.

The hajj, said to be the world’s largest annual mass gathering, is no stranger to tragedy. In 1990, more than 1,400 Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca suffocated or were trampled to death in a stampede into an air-conditioned pedestrian tunnel. Thursday’s death toll far surpasses the one in 2006, when around 350 people died during a similar stampede.

Some 2 million people are taking part in this year’s hajj pilgrimage, which started Tuesday and ends Saturday.

Contributing: John Bacon

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