Iran bans citizens from Umrah after reports of Saudi assaults
TEHRAN // Iran suspended all trips by pilgrims to Saudi Arabia on Monday amid growing diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
Iran’s culture ministry made the decision over the alleged abuse of two male Iranian pilgrims travelling through Jeddah airport in March as they returned home, state television reported.
Culture ministry spokesman Hossein Nooshabadi said the Umrah pilgrimage would be suspended until Saudi Arabia’s government “applies a strong attitude” to the case. He also said “capital punishment” should apply to the case, without offering details about it.
The alleged abuse, details of which have not been disclosed, sparked unauthorised protests at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Saturday. Public anger has grown over the alleged incident, with president Hassan Rouhani ordering an investigation and Iran’s foreign ministry summoning a Saudi diplomat.
But what actually happened remains unclear. On Monday, a representative of Iran’s top leader on Haj affairs downplayed the case, saying the pilgrims were not abused, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
“In the incident, no abuse has happened and the two policemen who attempted abuse were identified and detained by Saudi police,” Ali Ghaziasgar was quoted as saying.
Some 500,000 Iranians visit Saudi Arabia each year to perform Umrah. About 100,000 Iranian pilgrims annually travel for the Haj season.
Saudi officials have not commented on the dispute. Earlier this month, aviation authorities in the kingdom turned away an Iranian plane carrying pilgrims over it not having proper permission to fly into the country’s airspace, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been strained amid Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen targeting Houthi rebels there. The US, Western countries and Arab nations involved in the Saudi-led coalition have accused Iran of supporting the Houthis militarily, something both the rebels and the Islamic Republic deny.
Religious schisms play a role in Saudi distrust of Iran. Shiite pilgrims previously have said they were prevented from praying at shrines they revered during Haj season.
Politics also play a part as well, especially since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran has insisted in the past that its pilgrims be allowed to hold “disavowal of infidels” ceremonies — rallies denouncing Israel and Saudi ally the United States.
Saudi Arabia bans such demonstrations at Haj and in 1987, one such rally led to clashes with Saudi security forces in which more than 400 pilgrims, mostly Iranians, were killed. Iran stopped pilgrims from attending Haj for three years after the killings.
Iranian pilgrims still hold “disavowal of infidels” ceremonies on Haj, just on much smaller scales.
* Associated Press
Updated: April 13, 2015 04:00 AM