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Is Saudi Arabia doing enough to keep pilgrims safe? Iran says no.

Following last year’s deadly stampede, Iran banned pilgrimage to Mecca region, endorsing an alternate pilgrimage site in Iraq instead.

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    Muslim pilgrims make their way Sunday near Namira Mosque on the second and most significant day of the annual hajj pilgrimage, in Arafat, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
    Nariman El-Mofty/AP
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As nearly 2 million pilgrims ascended Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, officials kept a watchful eye from above with the help of drones.

The increased surveillance is part of the government’s response to a stampede that killed more than 2,400 participants last year in the Hajj, an annual Muslim rite, according to an unofficial count cited by BBC News.

Saudi officials report that nearly 800 pilgrims were crushed to death, but bodies returned to their home countries following the tragedy numbered more than 2,000, including more than 400 from Iran.

Abdullah Lofty, a pilgrim from Egypt, witnessed the horror as it unfolded.

“I saw someone trip over someone in a wheelchair and several people tripping over him,” Mr. Lotfy told The Associated Press. “People were climbing over each other just to breathe.”

The incident was the deadliest since 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were killed by a stampede in a tunnel between Mecca and Mina, as The New York Times reported.

Islam regards the site near Mecca as the place where God tested Abraham’s faith by ordering him to sacrifice his son Ismail and where the Prophet Muhammad gave his final sermon. For able-bodied Muslims who can afford it, the journey is a religious duty to be completed at least once in their lifetime. 

Iranians, however, are prohibited from making the pilgrimage this year. 

Iranian authorities – who assert that more than 4,500 people died during last year’s disaster, according to The New York Times – announced in May that Saudi Arabia had made insufficient progress in addressing safety concerns. 

In May, the Saudi Ministry of Interior announced it would staff an all-new joint security command center with 1,600 officers and privates monitoring 18,000 cameras, to allow for a quick response in the event a crisis develops, with personnel on the ground trained to speak a variety of languages.

The security upgrades coincide with $100 billion in investments that aim to expand accommodate Saudi Arabia’s growing religious tourism and diversify the economy beyond oil.

But that’s not enough for Iran, which opted instead to endorse an alternative pilgrimage to Karbala, an Islamic holy site in Iraq. The move elicited Saudi outrage and escalated tensions between the two nations.

Last week, the Iranian supreme leader accused Saudi authorities of murdering pilgrims in the stampede. The top Saudi religious authority responded by asserting that Iran’s leaders are not Muslims, and on Sunday he condemned Iran’s alternative destination.

"Any policy that aims to divert the [Hajj] from its proper course is un-Islamic and is a criminal policy,” he said, as quoted by local news outlet al-Okaz.

Beyond the politics of the Hajj itself, the two nations have been caught in a series of disputes over regional conflicts, including Syria, where Iran backs President Bashar al-Assad but Saudi Arabia has sided with rebel groups.

Diplomatic relations between the two Middle East powers disintegrated earlier this year after Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric and Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Materials from Reuters was used in his report.

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