Iran pilgrims to join this year's hajj
Iranian pilgrims will participate in this year's annual hajj, Saudi Arabia said on Friday, despite ruptured ties between the regional rivals.
For the first time in nearly three decades Iran's pilgrims – which would have numbered about 60,000 – did not attend last year's hajj after Riyadh and Tehran failed to agree on security and logistics. Tensions remain as Saudi Arabia repeatedly accuses Iran of fuelling conflicts by supporting armed Shia movements in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. But after talks between the two sides, the Iranians will join this year's ritual which takes place at the beginning of September.
"The ministry of hajj and the Iranian organisation have completed all the necessary measures to ensure Iranian pilgrims perform hajj 1438 according to the procedures followed by all Muslim countries," the official Saudi Press Agency said, referring to this year in the Islamic calendar.
The hajj ministry said that the kingdom, home to Islam's holiest sites, welcomes "all pilgrims from all the different nationalities and backgrounds".
Iran rejects accusations of regional aggression and says Riyadh must stop its alleged support for Sunni "terrorists" like the Islamic State jihadist group and al-Qaida.
Although the verbal sparring continued, Saudi media reported in December that the Saudi minister in charge of pilgrimages, Mohammed Bentin, had invited Iran to discuss arrangements for this year's hajj. An Iranian delegation visited Saudi Arabia in February for talks with Bentin. In early March, Iran said there had been progress.
"Most of the questions up for discussion have been resolved and a couple of issues are remaining," Iran's ISNA news agency quoted Ali Ghazi Askar, the Iranian supreme leader's representative for hajj affairs, as saying. "If those questions are resolved, we hope pilgrims will soon be sent to Saudi Arabia."
A major issue was compensation for the families of hundreds of people killed in a stampede during the 2015 hajj. Iran says 464 of its citizens died in the disaster.
More than 1.8 million faithful took part in last year's hajj. The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam and all Muslims who can must perform it at least once in their lives.
Iranian pilgrims have for the past two years not attended the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in western Saudi Arabia, known as umrah, which occurs outside hajj. Tehran suspended its umrah participation over the sexual assault of two Iranian teenage boy pilgrims by Saudi police at Jeddah airport in early 2015.
Ghazi Askar said Iran had raised this issue as well and if the culprits were punished, "the lesser hajj will also be restored".
Despite agreement on the hajj, Riyadh maintains its criticism of Iran, as highlighted in talks on Tuesday between Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Donald Trump. The two leaders "noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities", the White House said. (AFP)
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