RIYADH, May 20, (AFP): A senior Saudi religious leader on Friday warned against those who would “wreak havoc” under the guise of pilgrimage, an apparent swipe at the kingdom’s rival Iran.
The comments by Sheikh Saleh bin Abdullah bin Hameed at the Grand Mosque in Mecca coincide with a dispute between Shiite Iran and its Sunni regional rival Saudi Arabia over this year’s Hajj.
“When Muslims travel to this country as pilgrims they represent their unity and forget their differences. They recognise that the holy lands are not fields to address their differences and settle scores,” Hameed said during his weekly sermon at Islam’s holiest site.
In comments carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, he accused “aggressors” of trying to exploit the pilgrimage to divert attention “from the suffering” in their own country.
“They want to take advantage of the worship season and the gathering of Muslims and the holy sites for political gain, to wreak havoc and cause chaos, and that leads to divisions and sowing discord,” said the imam, whose website lists him as an adviser to the Saudi Royal Court.
On May 12 Iran said its nationals will miss the annual Hajj in September this year and accused Saudi Arabia of “sabotage”.
The Hajj dispute is the latest strain between the two countries which have had no diplomatic relations since January.
Riyadh cut ties with Tehran after demonstrators burned its embassy and a consulate following the Saudi execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
In the first dialogue since ties were severed, a delegation from Tehran held four days of talks in Saudi Arabia last month aimed at reaching a deal for Iranians to join the pilgrimage. But talks became deadlocked.
Among the points of contention, the Iranians demanded to be able to hold their own rituals, including protests chanting “Death to America, death to Israel,” according to a statement from the Saudi Hajj ministry carried by Al-Riyadh newspaper.
Saudi Arabia seeks to keep political slogans out of the pilgrimage.
“Chanting slogans and gathering and rallying are not religious and not what God or the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) ordered,” Hameed said.
“And so it is the kingdom’s policy not to allow anyone or any entity to tamper with the security of the holy sites or the security of the pilgrims,” he said.
Another contentious issue has been security, after a stampede at last year’s Hajj killed about 2,300 foreign pilgrims including 464 Iranians.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds over a raft of regional issues, notably the conflicts in Syria and Yemen in which they support opposing sides.
The annual Hajj and the lesser pilgrimage known as Umra draw millions of faithful from around the world each year to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.