Governor of Saudi Arabia's Mecca takes a swipe at Iran over Islamic divide

Muslim pilgrims from around the world circle the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Sept 14, 2016.
Muslim pilgrims from around the world circle the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Sept 14, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

MINA (AFP) - The governor of Saudi Arabia's Mecca region on Wednesday (Sept 14) urged Muslim religious leaders to fight sectarianism, an indirect criticism of Shi'ite Iran.

Prince Khaled al-Faisal was speaking at a news conference to discuss the annual haj pilgrimage, which ends on Thursday and has added to tensions between Riyadh and Teheran.

"I call on Muslim leaders, whether they are political leaders, ulemas (scholars), or intellectuals, to combat sectarianism," Prince Faisal said.

For the first time in nearly three decades, Iran's 64,000 pilgrims are not attending the haj in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia after the two regional rivals failed to agree on security and logistics.

"Combat this sectarian divide between Muslims. Islam is one and only one religion," Prince Faisal said in Mina, a pilgrimage site on the edge of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's holiest sites, which pilgrims visit during the haj, and is the seat of Sunni Islam which predominates in the Muslim world.

The kingdom is founded on the teachings of 18th century Sunni preacher Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, whose ideas have themselves been decried by critics as a driving force behind sectarianism and an inspiration to violent jihadists.

Iran is the world's major Shi'ite power, and the two nations are at odds over a number of regional issues including the wars in Syria and Yemen.

The rivals have no diplomatic relations and have been engaged in a slanging match over the haj since last week.

"Islam is unique. There is no multiple Islam," said Prince Faisal, president of the Central Hajj Committee.

He said this year's haj occurred without incident despite "the lies and allegations... of those who wanted to place in doubt the capacity of the kingdom to serve the pilgrims".

Among its concerns over Iranian participation in this year's haj, Riyadh said Teheran had demanded the right to organise demonstrations.

Teheran in turn accused Riyadh of "blocking the path leading to Allah".

Security was one of the contentious issues following last year's hajj stampede which, according to foreign officials, killed roughly 2,300 people.

Iran reported the largest number of victims, at 464.

Just days before the haj began on Saturday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei questioned Saudi Arabia's right to manage Islam's holiest sites.

He called the Saudi ruling family "puny Satans" who had politicised the pilgrimage. Khamenei also said the Saudi authorities "murdered" the stampede victims.

Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh retaliated by telling a newspaper that Iranians "are not Muslims".

Reiterating a point made on Tuesday by King Salman, Prince Faisal said Saudi Arabia does not interfere in Iran's internal affairs "but we don't permit the holy sites and the hajj to be used for political ends".

More than 1.8 million faithful from around the world have been attending the annual pilgrimage.