Iran sus­pends hajj trips to Saudi Ara­bia amid diplo­matic ten­sion

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL - BY NASSER KARIMI

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.

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