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Saudi king rejects mixing Haj with politics

MAKKAH: Saudi King Salman said Tuesday the kingdom rejected any attempt to play politics with Haj, the annual pilgrimage which has added to tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.

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

Among its concerns, Riyadh said Tehran had demanded the right to organise demonstrations.

“The kingdom categorically rejects that the Haj serves any political purpose,” Salman, 80, said in a brief address to international VIPs attending the pilgrimage.

Tehran had accused Riyadh of “blocking the path leading to Allah.”

Among the contentious issues was security after last year’s Haj stampede which, according to foreign officials, killed roughly 2,300 people.

Iran reported the largest number of victims, at 464.

Just days before this year’s Haj, which 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 Saudi authorities “murdered “the stampede victims.

His claims led to mutual accusations throughout last week.

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

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is the most powerful member, accused Iran of “a desperate attempt to politicise” the Haj and said Khamenei’s remarks were offensive.

More than 1.8 million faithful from around the world have been attending the annual pilgrimage which officially ends on Thursday.

“Serving the guests of God is an honour for us,” Salman told the VIP delegates.

Saudi Arabia had said Iranians were still welcome at the Haj if they came from another country. The Haj ministry’s spokesman said “a number” who held other passports were in attendance.

He was not more specific.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have no diplomatic relations and are at odds over a number of regional issues including the wars in Syria and Yemen.

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