Iran suspends hajj trips to Saudi Arabia amid diplomatic tension
Iran suspended all trips by pilgrims to Saudi Arabia on Monday amid growing diplomatic tensions between the two countries, state television reported.
Iran’s Culture Ministry made the decision over alleged abuse suffered by two male Iranian pilgrims traveling through Saudi’s Jeddah airport in March trying to return home, the station reported.
Culture Ministry spokesman Hossein Nooshabadi told state TV that the minor hajj would be suspended until the Saudi government “applies a strong attitude” to the case. He also said “capital punishment” should apply to the case, without offering details about it.
The alleged abuse, details of which have not publicly discussed, sparked unauthorized protests at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Saturday. Public anger has grown over the incident, with President Hassan Rouhani ordering an investigation and Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoning a Saudi diplomat over it.
But what actually happened remains unclear. On Monday, a representative of Iran’s top leader on hajj affairs downplayed the case, saying the pilgrims weren’t abused, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
“In the incident, no abuse has happened and the two policemen who attempted abuse were identified and detained by Saudi police,” Ali Ghaziasgar was quoted as saying.
Some 500,000 Iranians visit Saudi Arabia each year for the minor hajj, which involves pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest sites. Some 100,000 Iranian pilgrims annually travel to Saudi Arabia for the major hajj season, which comes after the holy month of Ramadan. Hajj is a ritual required of every able-bodied Muslim at least once in a lifetime
Saudi officials haven’t commented publicly on the dispute. Earlier this month, aviation authorities in the kingdom turned away an Iranian plane carrying pilgrims over it not having proper permission to fly into the country’s airspace, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
Tensions between Shiite power Iran and the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been strained amid Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen targeting Shiite rebels known as Houthis there. The U.S., Western countries and Sunni Arab nations involved in the Saudi-led coalition have accused Iran of supporting the Houthis militarily, something both the rebels and the Islamic Republic deny.
Religious schisms play a role in Saudi distrust of Iran. Shiites are considered infidels by a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam widely followed in the kingdom. Shiite pilgrims previously have said they were prevented from praying at shrines they revered during hajj season.
Politics also play a part as well, especially since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran has insisted in the past that its pilgrims be allowed to hold “disavowal of infidels” ceremonies — rallies denouncing Israel and Saudi ally the United States.
Saudi Arabia bans such demonstrations at hajj and in 1987, one such rally led to clashes with Saudi security forces in which more than 400 pilgrims, mostly Iranians, were killed. Iran stopped pilgrims from attending hajj for three years after the killings.
Iranian pilgrims still hold “disavowal of infidels” ceremonies today on hajj, just on much smaller scales.