Iran halts pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia as tensions rise

Iran suspends pilgrimages to Mecca as tensions with Saudi Arabia rise

Iran suspended pilgrimage visits to Saudi Arabia on Monday in the latest manifestation of escalating tensions between the two regional rivals.

The move comes after allegations that security personnel at the airport in Jeddah sexually molested a pair of Iranian teenage boys last month as the two pilgrims were headed home.

Ali Jannati, Iran’s minister for culture and Islamic guidance, told local media that flights for the “minor hajj” travel period had been suspended until further notice. The minor or off-season hajj encompasses the months not included in the official period of pilgrimage to Mecca, the Saudi home of Islam’s most revered shrines.

In his comments, the Iranian minister said Saudi officials had vowed to punish those responsible for the crime. Details of the alleged sexual attack have not been released. Saudi authorities have not commented publicly on the case.

But the reported assaults have caused outrage here. On Saturday, angry protesters gathered outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and demanded that the attackers be brought to justice.

Tensions are already running high between predominantly Shiite Iran and mostly Sunni Saudi Arabia, hubs of the two major branches of Islam. The two nations are backing opposing sides in sectarian-fueled proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and are also at odds about events in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere.

The pilgrimage has occasionally emerged as a flash point of regional tensions. In 1987, clashes between Iranian Shiite pilgrims and Saudi security forces in Mecca left hundreds dead. Each side blamed the other for the bloody incident.

Approximately 500,000 Iranians visit Saudi Arabia annually during the minor hajj period, according to official estimates. An additional 100,000 pilgrims from Iran make the trip during the weeks of official pilgrimage, officials say.

Hajj-related travel is big business in much of the Muslim world. Special flights transport the pilgrims from Iran and elsewhere to Saudi Arabia.

Inside Iran, an extensive network of travel agencies, tour organizers and middlemen help make arrangements and secure visas for pilgrims. One Iranian travel agent who declined to be named for privacy reasons said pilgrims were being advised to fly to Kuwait or other nations to seek Saudi visas.

Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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