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Internationalization of hajj declaration of war: Riyadh

JEDDAH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) receives prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr yesterday. – AFP

RIYADH/TEHRAN: Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister called Qatar’s demands for an internationalization of the Muslim hajj pilgrimage a declaration of war against the kingdom, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television said yesterday, although it was unclear whether Qatar had actually made any such demand.


“Qatar’s demands to internationalize the holy sites is aggressive and a declaration of war against the kingdom,” Adel Al-Jubeir was quoted saying on Al Arabiya’s website. “We reserve the right to respond to anyone who is working on the internationalization of the holy sites,” he said.


However, it was unclear whether Qatar made the demand. It did accuse the Saudis of politicizing hajj and addressed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion on Saturday, expressing concern about obstacles facing Qataris who want to attend hajj this year. No one from the Qatari government was immediately available for comment. Saudi Arabia and its allies yesterday accused Qatar of complicating hajj for its citizens, who cannot take direct flights from Doha to Saudi Arabia under the sanctions.


Meanwhile, Nearly 90,000 Iranians are expected to attend the hajj this year, and were due to start arriving yesterday, after Tehran boycotted the pilgrimage last year amid tensions with Saudi Arabia. Around 800 pilgrims were due to leave Iran on three flights to Madinah yesterday, the director of the hajj at Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, Nasrollah Farahmand told state media. Approximately 86,500 Iranians are expected to attend the hajj in total this year and 800 coordinators have travelled to Saudi Arabia to help Iranians during the pilgrimage, he said.


Iran boycotted the hajj last year after hundreds of people, many of them Iranians, died in a crush at the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia in 2015, and following a diplomatic rift between the two countries who are vying for power and influence in the region. In a speech to hajj organizers yesterday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iranians would never forget the “catastrophic events” of 2015 and called on Saudi Arabia to ensure the security of all pilgrims.


“The serious and constant issue for the Islamic Republic is the preservation of the security, dignity, welfare and comfort of all pilgrims, particularly Iranian pilgrims,” Khamenei said, according to his official site. “The security of the hajj is the responsibility of the country where the two noble shrines exist.”


Riyadh severed diplomatic relations last year after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia in Jan 2016. In February this year Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia, which is mostly Sunni, that initiated the process of Iranian pilgrims returning for the hajj.


However, tensions between the two countries remain at an all-time high. Last month Iranian officials pointed a finger at Saudi Arabia after Islamic State carried out attacks on the Iranian parliament in Tehran and the shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that left at least 18 dead.


Saudi Arabia denied any involvement. Khamenei in his speech yesterday also called on all pilgrims to show their reaction to the recent unrest at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and “America’s wicked presence in the region” at the hajj, according to his official website. He did not specify what kind of reaction he expected pilgrims to show.


Later yesterday, Iran’s official IRNA news agency said that an appeals court has approved the jail sentences for 10 people charged with attacking Saudi diplomatic missions. The report said a lawyer associated with the case said the prison sentences for the 10 attackers, ranging from three to six months each, was approved by the appeals court.


The report’s unnamed attorney also noted that four of the defendants were clerics and therefore would have to appear before the Special Clerical Court. The trial began in July 2016. In Jan 2016, protesters in Iran, angered by the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr by the Saudi government, ransacked and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran and also attacked a Saudi consulate in the northeastern city of Mashhad.


Separately, Iraq’s influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr is on a rare visit to Saudi Arabia. Sadr’s office released a statement yesterday saying he’d been invited to the Sunni kingdom. Saudi Arabia is concerned about the influence of its rival Iran in Iraq, which backs Shiite militias fighting against the Islamic State group there. Sadr is among those who’ve called for the militias to disband.


Pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat posted a photo on its Twitter account of Sadr arriving in Saudi Arabia and being greeted by Thamer Al-Sabhan, the kingdom’s former ambassador to Iraq and its first to be assigned to Baghdad after a 25-year break. Sabhan was renamed minister of state for the Gulf region after tensions with the Iraqi government. He’d claimed that Iranian-backed militias were plotting to assassinate him. – Agencies


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