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Monday, October 12, 2015, 10:07

Prince says Saudi will stay in charge of hajj

By Associated Press

Prince says Saudi will stay in charge of hajj
In this Oct 10, 2015 photo, Prince Turki al-Faisal talks to the audience during the opening day of the Beirut Institute Sum mit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo / Kamran Jebreili)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates - Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal on Sunday rejected the idea of sharing the administration of the annual hajj pilgrimage with other Muslim nations, saying Riyadh considers it "a matter of sovereignty" and a "privilege."

The senior member of the Saudi royal family spoke to The Associated Press as his country faces mounting criticism in the wake of last month's disastrous crush of pilgrims outside the holy city of Mecca, which killed over 1,400 people, according to an AP count, making it the deadliest annual pilgrimage on record.

Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran, which lost the largest number of pilgrims, has accused the kingdom of mismanagement and called for an independent body to oversee the hajj.

The royal Al Saud family, which governs Saudi Arabia and for which the country is named after, derives enormous prestige and legitimacy from being the caretakers of the hajj and Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. King Salman, in line with past Saudi monarchs, holds the title of "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in reference to the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet Muhammad's first mosque ever built in Medina.

Oversight of these holy places and the hajj "is a matter of sovereignty and privilege and service," Prince Turki said.

"The kingdom over the years, having gotten over the awful times when pilgrims couldn't guarantee their travels to the hajj in the old days and all the other factors of disease and crowds and housing and so on, we'll not give up that privilege or that distinction of being the servants of the two holy places," he said.

"The people of Mecca are the ones who know best the territory of Mecca and you can't take that away from the people of Mecca."

Turki is the most senior Saudi royal to comment publicly on the Iranian criticism. He is currently chairman of the Riyadh-based King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, named after his late father.

Turki spoke to the AP in an interview Sunday on the sidelines of an event in Abu Dhabi organized by the Beirut Institute think tank.

At least 1,480 pilgrims died when large crowds converged down a narrow street on Sept. 24 in the area of Mina, just outside Mecca. The death toll is based on an AP count from official statements from 19 nations whose citizens died in the incident.

The death toll given by Saudi Arabia's Health Ministry is 769. Health and security officials have not immediately responded to AP requests for clarification.

Iran's death toll of 465 is the highest announced by any country thus far.

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