Will Saudi block Iranians from hajj this year?

A Saudi policeman (R) stands watch as muslims touch and pray at the door of the Kaaba and touch and kiss the al-Hajr al-Aswad "Black Stone" during their Umrah Mawlid al-Nabawi "Birthday of Prophet Mohammad" in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia January 18, 2016. Picture taken January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh - RTX25AB8
A Saudi policeman (R) stands watch as muslims touch and pray at the door of the Kaaba and touch and kiss the al-Hajr al-Aswad “Black Stone” during their Umrah Mawlid al-Nabawi “Birthday of Prophet Mohammad” in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia January 18, 2016. Picture taken January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh – RTX25AB8

Tensions between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran are not new, but recent statements by Iranian officials suggest that Saudi Arabia is intentionally delaying meetings between the two countries that would prevent Iranian pilgrims from performing their hajj obligations for the first time in nearly three decades.

An article by Arman Daily titled Hajj without Iranian pilgrims! covered the most recent statements by Iranian officials in charge of the pilgrimage. The delay by Saudi Arabia for preparatory talks on the hajj means they do not want hajj to be completed [by the Iranians], said the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hojat al-Islam Seyed Ali Ghazi Askar, on April 3. He warned that if there are no talks in the coming days on the issues of housing, transportation, food and other logistical mattersfor Iranian pilgrims, the conditions to conducting a desirable hajj will become very difficult.

Just before the Iranian New Year on March 20, Saeed Ohadi, the head of Irans Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, addressed some of the issues preventing talks between the two sides. Ohadi said that Saudi officials postponed a Jan. 7 meeting to March 9. According to Ohadi, Saudi officials, citing miscommunication between their Foreign Ministry and consular services in the United Arab Emirates, then refused to issue visas to the Iranian delegation for the March 9 meeting. Ohadi said that by this time last year, preparations for the 2015 hajj were already underway, adding, Unfortunately, there is no hope for hajj [for Iranians] this year.

In January, Saudi Arabia cut relations with Iran after a mob stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. The group had originally gathered at the embassy to protest the Saudi execution of Shiite leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Even before the severing of diplomatic relations, and regional rivalries and proxy wars in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, Iran and Saudi Arabia were on an ominous trajectory in regard to hajj. In April 2015, Iran suspended nonmandatory hajj pilgrimage (umrah), which can be undertaken any time, after two Iranian boys were separated from their families and sexually assaulted by Saudi airport security. While Saudi Arabia says that they punished the individuals involved, Ghazi Askar said the punishment and reaction by Saudi Arabia was insufficient. Approximately 850,000 Iranians attend umrah pilgrimage every year, according to an Ebtekar article, which also covered the possibility that Iranians may not attend hajj this year due to what it called Saudi obstruction.

After the Jeddah incident, 107 pilgrims were killed in a crane crash in September, including eight Iranians, and a stampede killed over 400 Iranians in the city of Mina. Iranian officials and the public were incensed over what they viewed as poor Saudi management during hajj.According to Ghazi Askar, Iranians have still not been compensated over the stampede and crane crash.

He acknowledged the political issues between the two countries, but said that in previous years they were able to put aside their differences for hajj; however, the situation this year is the opposite, he said.

The last time Iranians had not attended the mandatory hajj pilgrimage was after a 1987 protest in which Iranian demonstrators clashed with Saudi police, resulting in the deaths of hundreds. As a result, Saudi Arabia reduced the number of Iranian pilgrims, prompting Iran to boycott the hajj until 1990.

Alluding to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s comments that despite political tensions Iranian pilgrims are welcome in Mecca and Medina, Ohadi said, I hope that the contradictions and inconsistencies between the words and actions of Saudi officials is resolved soon.

The mandatory hajj pilgrimage this year will begin Sept. 9.

Extracted from al-monitor

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