RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia's King Salman said Monday that "irresponsible comments" and criticism of the kingdom's management of the hajj will not affect his country's oversight of the annual Islamic pilgrimage.
It was the king's first official response to denunciations by regional rival Iran, which has questioned Saudi Arabia's custodianship of the hajj following a deadly crush Sept. 24 that killed at least 1,480 pilgrims, according to an Associated Press count based on official statements from nations whose citizens died.
Iran's death toll of 465 is the highest announced by any country thus far. Egypt's Foreign Ministry on Monday said the death toll among Egyptians has climbed to 181, with 53 still missing.
Immediately after the disaster, Iran's leaders accused Saudi Arabia Sunni rulers of mismanagement and ineptitude, and top Shiite clerics and lawmakers are calling on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to manage the hajj.
In an apparent reference to those comments, Salman said the kingdom "will not allow any hidden hands" to politicize the tragedy and divide Muslims.
"Irresponsible comments that aim to take political advantage of this incident, and cause dissention and division in the Muslim world, will not affect the role of Saudi Arabia and its great duty and responsibilities in the service of pilgrims" the king said in remarks carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The king delivered his remarks during a Cabinet session in the capital Riyadh.
Salman stressed that Saudi Arabia has been honored by God to serve Islam's holy sites in Mecca and Medina, and is dedicated to ensuring the comfort and safety of pilgrims, who are commonly referred to by the kingdom as "guests of God."
The king's comments come a day after Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, whose brother is governor of Mecca, told The Associated Press that the kingdom would not be entertaining Iranian calls to share management or security of the hajj because Riyadh considers it "a matter of sovereignty" and a "privilege."
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 holy sites in Mecca and Medina, which draw millions of pilgrims from around the world annually. 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 mosque in Medina, where he is buried.
Saudi Arabia's Health Ministry has said 769 pilgrims were killed in this year's hajj disaster. Health and security officials have not immediately responded to AP requests for clarification on the death toll figures announced by individual countries and the tally given by Saudi officials.
Saudi Arabia is investigating the tragedy, which took place just outside Mecca in an area called Mina.
Survivors say a large crowd heading to perform one of the final rites of hajj met another large crowd coming from the opposite direction on a narrow street flanked by iron gates. People in the middle were crushed and suffocated as crowds in the back, unaware, continued to push forward.
It was the second tragedy to strike this year's hajj. On Sept. 11, a massive crane collapsed onto the Grand Mosque, killing 111 worshippers in Mecca.
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.