Oct. 25 (Bloomberg) -- The top cleric in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest cities, warned against using the annual Hajj pilgrimage to promote political slogans and sectarian hatred.
The Muslim pilgrimage isn’t a time for “raising slogans” and shouldn’t be “exploited for purposes of political agendas,” Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh was cited as saying today by the official Saudi Press Agency. The pilgrimage is a “great occasion for unity and solidarity between Muslims,” he said.
Tensions between predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran have escalated this year. On Oct. 11, the U.S. accused Iran of plotting to assassinate Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador in Washington. A week earlier, Saudi Arabia accused an unidentified foreign country, believed to be Iran, of seeking to undermine the stability of the kingdom after an attack on security forces in the Shiite village of Awwamiya.
About 1.8 million people from abroad made the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca last year, the Saudi Press Agency reported. Saudi Arabia issued 94,000 visas for Iranian pilgrims this year, the Riyadh-based SPA reported, citing Mohammed al-Kilabi, the Saudi ambassador to Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s royal family maintains a strict version of Sunni Islam. It prohibits the public observance of other religions and limits the practice of other branches of Islam, including Shiism.
Saudi religious leaders have in the past blamed Iran for encouraging violence by Shiite minority groups in the region. In May, al-Sheikh warned of “schemes planned for our region with the aim of stirring” sectarian differences. Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obeikan, an adviser to King Abdullah’s Royal Court, said Iranian sectarianism was the cause of regional tension.
Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain in March to crush a mainly Shiite-led uprising after accusing Iran of interfering in the affairs of the Persian Gulf country, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Iran denies the allegation and accuses Sunni rulers in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia of discriminating against Shiites.
In February 2009, Saudi police arrested several Shiite pilgrims after clashes. Saudi security forces fought with Iranian pilgrims holding a rally during the Hajj in 1987, resulting in the deaths of 402 people, 275 of them Iranians.
--Editors: Ben Holland, Heather Langan.
To contact the reporter on this story: Glen Carey in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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