Iranian pilgrims 'to skip this year's haj'

Teheran blames Saudi 'sabotage' as the two sides fail to reach deal on annual pilgrimage

TEHERAN • Angry over what it described as Saudi sabotage, Iran said Iranian citizens would not participate this year in the haj, the annual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, the host country of Islam's holiest places.

Saudi Arabia said Iran was to blame for the problem, accusing the Iranians of making unacceptable demands. It was unclear from the statements by both sides on Thursday whether the dispute was intractable or could still be solved ahead of the haj, which takes place in September.

Regardless, the statements reflected the worsening relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, long-time regional rivals that are on opposite sides of conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Millions of Muslim pilgrims worldwide visit the sacred Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina during the haj, and the Saudi kingdom takes great pride in hosting the event as well as a lesser pilgrimage that can be done any time, known as the umrah.

The haj was marred last September by a stampede that, according to outside estimates, killed more than 2,400 people. Iran said more than 460 were Iranians, among the biggest losses of any country.

Saudi Arabia has said 769 people were killed but has not explained the discrepancy in the death tolls. Nor has it disclosed any results from what it promised would be a thorough investigation of the stampede, regarded as one of the worst in the history of the haj.

The stampede added to the longstanding tensions between Iran, which is predominantly Shi'ite, and Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Sunni.

In January, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran after Iranian protesters burned the Saudi Embassy in Teheran, angered over Saudi Arabia's execution of an outspoken Shi'ite cleric.

An Iranian delegation held four days of talks with Saudi Arabia last month to discuss haj arrangements, a rare face-to-face negotiation between the countries in the months since diplomatic relations were severed.

But Iran's Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati said on Thursday that the talks had gone poorly. Asserting that there would be no haj participation by Iran this year, he blamed the Saudis.

He was quoted by Iranian state- sponsored website Press TV as saying: "Their attitude was cold and inappropriate... They did not accept our proposals concerning the issuing of visas, the transport and security of the pilgrims."

The Saudi ministry responsible for the haj arrangements rebutted the Iranian statements, saying Iran's negotiators had insisted, among other things, on the granting of visas inside Iran.

The Saudis have said visas can be obtained through an online system used by all visiting pilgrims, according to a news report on the dispute by Al-Jazeera.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'Iranian pilgrims 'to skip this year's haj''. Print Edition | Subscribe