Picture of Gaza war protest misrepresented as fatalities in hajj pilgrimage

As the death toll from this year's hajj topped 1,300 amid extreme heat in Saudi Arabia, multiple social media posts misrepresented a photo of an Iranian protest in support of Gaza war victims falsely claiming it shows children killed during the pilgrimage. The image has circulated in media reports since November 2023, months before the annual pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca.

"Can you call this a religion, where they take children on a pilgrimage to turn them into corpses," read the Korean-language claim shared here on Facebook on June 24.

"This is a child abuse cult," the post continued.

The image shows what appeared to be dozens of body bags strewn across the ground, with flowers laid on some of them.

The claim was shared as Saudi Arabia's official news agency reported the death toll during the pilgrimage reached 1,301 as temperatures soared to as high as 51.8 degrees Celsius (125 degrees Fahrenheit) in Mecca.

An AFP tally on June 21, compiling official statements and reports from diplomats involved in the response, put the toll at 1,126, more than half of them from Egypt.

Saudi officials have said 1.8 million pilgrims took part this year, most of whom came from abroad. 

The pilgrimage is increasingly affected by climate change, according to a Saudi study published last month that said temperatures in the area where rituals are performed were rising 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.72 degrees Fahrenheit) each decade.

Screenshot of the false post shared on Facebook, captured June 24

Similar claims were shared on Facebook here; and on South Korean forums Naver Band and DC Inside.

However, the image shows a protest in Iran related to the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Iranian protest

Google reverse image search found the image published by the West Asia News Agency, an Iran-based news organisation, on November 13, 2023 (archived link).

"An Iranian man sits next to the Symbolic shrouds of Gaza children's dead bodies during a gesture in a street in Tehran, Iran. November 13, 2023," the photo's caption read. 

Below is a screenshot comparison between the image shared with the false claim on Facebook (left) and the original photo published by the West Asia News Agency (right):

Screenshot comparison between the image shared with the false claim on Facebook (left) and the original image published by the West Asia News Agency (right)

The photo was one of nine capturing the same event, which AFP traced to Felestin Square in the Iranian capital of Tehran (archived link).

According to a Reuters news agency report that carried the same photo, the image shows one of many protests held across Iran ahead of World Children's Day against the deaths of children and other civilians in the ongoing Gaza war (archived link).

Approximately 4,000 bundled white shrouds the size of children were laid on the ground in memory of Palestinian victims as a "work of art" titled "Symphony of the Killed," according to the state-run Iranian Republic News Agency, which also carried various photos of the event on November 14 (archived link).

The October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza although the army says 41 are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,626 people, also mostly civilians, Gaza's health ministry said.

Other photos of the protest in Felestin Square were published in international news reports, including here and here (archived links here and here).

AFP has debunked misinformation about the hajj pilgrimage here

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