RIYADH - Saudi Arabia is planning to triple the number of visas it issues for the Umrah pilgrimage, newspapers reported on Monday, more than two weeks after a deadly Haj stampede.
The Saudi Gazette and Okaz newspapers quoted Haj Minister Bandar al-Hajar as saying that as many as 1.25 million pilgrims are expected to arrive each month starting next year.
That compares with 400,000 a month now, the reports said. The new system would allow full use of massive expansion projects at the kingdom’s holy sites, Hajar was quoted as saying. The number had declined, particularly because of a multi-billion-dollar expansion which began four years ago at the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
The 400,000-square-metre Grand Mosque enlargement is the equivalent of more than 50 football pitches, and it will allow the complex to accommodate roughly two million people at once.
A crane working on the expansion collapsed into a courtyard of the mosque on September 11, killing at least 108 people including foreign pilgrims, just before Haj. An even greater tragedy, the worst-ever in the history of the pilgrimage, occurred on September 24 during a stoning ritual at Mina, near Makkah.
The stampede killed at least 1,587 people, according to tallies issued by foreign officials in more than 30 countries. The toll greatly exceeds the figure of 769 provided by Saudi Arabia.
A formal Saudi inquiry is under way into the stampede, which left hundreds of pilgrims still unaccounted for. Efforts to identify the dead continue at a health ministry facility guarded by security officers in the Makkah suburb of Muaissem, sources say. Representatives from foreign consulates are allowed in to the single-storey building to try to identify bodies through albums of photographs, said a source familiar with the operation. Authorities are also using DNA and fingerprint analysis. Access to the site by journalists is denied. The same facility also contains the bodies of victims from the stampede, said the source. A senior Saudi religious leader, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais, last Friday denounced “lies” being spread about the kingdom after the accidents.