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Saudi to allow Iran pilgrims to attend Hajj

Hajj pilgrims climb and pray on the sacred area of and around around Mount Arafat in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on September 11, 2016
Hajj pilgrims climb and pray on the sacred area of and around around Mount Arafat in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on September 11, 2016

Saudi Arabia said on Friday it had completed all necessary arrangements for Iranian pilgrims to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, the official SPA news agency said, an issue that has created tensions between the two regional powers in the past.

The news agency said the arrangements were completed after a meeting took place with an Iranian delegation on 23 February.

Iran’s Tasnim news agency said on 5 March that the country would send around 80,000 pilgrims this year.

Read more: Saudi-Iran Hajj spat more political than religious

Saudi Arabia oversees more than two million Muslims from around the world making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam which every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to is obliged to undertake at least once.

Relations between the fundamentalist Shia Iranian regime and the Sunni Saudi Arabian monarchy, which back rival sides in several Middle East conflicts, worsened after hundreds of people including Iranians died in a crush at the 2015 event. Riyadh said 769 pilgrims were killed in the 2015 disaster – the highest Hajj death toll since a crush in 1990.

Following the crush, relations deteriorated further after Saudi Arabia executed a pro-Iranian Shia cleric, Nimr Al-Nimr, for terrorism offences. In retaliation, Tehran allowed Iranian demonstrators to sack and burn the Saudi Embassy in Iran, leading to the complete severing of diplomatic ties.

Last year, Iranians were unable to attend Hajj due to their government’s refusal to use the Swiss diplomatic mission as an intermediary for the issuing of Saudi Hajj visas.

Seeking to capitalise from the outrage of the Hajj crush, Iran blamed the disaster on what it called the organisers’ incompetence. Yet Iran has a history of provoking the authorities and police during Hajj rites.

Saudi Arabia does not allow the religious event to be used as a platform for the airing of political views, yet Iran has done so on many occasions by encouraging its pilgrims to agitate by chanting slogans associated with then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The most notable case of this occurring was a protest organised by the Iranians that descended into violence in 1987. Shia pilgrims encouraged by Iran turned violent after Saudi authorities ordered them to stop chants of “Death to America! Death to the Soviet Union! Death to Israel!”.

The violence led to the deaths of 275 Iranians in the ensuing stampede, as well as 85 Saudi citizens and security personnel and 42 pilgrims from other countries.

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