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Iranian leaders criticize Saudi Arabia over last year’s deadly hajj crush and stampede

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a weekly Cabinet meeting in Tehran on Sept. 7, 2016.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a weekly Cabinet meeting in Tehran on Sept. 7, 2016.

(Iranian Presidency Office via Associated Press)

For Muslims, the five pillars of Islam, professing the Muslim faith, prayer, paying alms, fasting and the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia are the central religious obligations they must all fulfill.

Whereas the first four can be done on one’s own, the pilgrimage, or hajj, is a communal rite, a journey drawing millions of Muslims of all stripes and nationalities together.

But the annual pilgrimage, which starts this week, has been used as a weapon of sorts in recent days in the often-bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Muslims should punish Saudi Arabia for last year’s stampede that killed hundreds of people during hajj. Rouhani said Saudi authorities failed to rescue pilgrims.

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“The government of Saudi Arabia must be held accountable for this incident,” Rouhani reportedly said during a Cabinet meeting. “Unfortunately, this government has even refrained from a verbal apology to Muslims and Muslim countries.”

The government of Saudi Arabia must be held accountable for this incident.

President Hassan Rouhani

Rouhani also said Saudi Arabia supports terrorism in the region. Iran had announced in May that it would not send pilgrims to Saudi Arabia to participate in the hajj.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir, in a news conference from the Saudi Embassy in London, accused Iran “of trying to politicize the hajj obligation to achieve political gains.”

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Jubeir said there also may be “problems for the Iranians who may intend to come to hajj in the coming years.” He did not elaborate.

The remarks were the latest blows in a verbal war between the two countries.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a speech Monday excoriated Saudi’s rulers as “puny Satans” who have reduced hajj to a “religious-tourist trip.” Khamenei said Saudis murdered the pilgrims who died last year.

“The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers -- instead of providing medical treatment and helping them or at least quenching their thirst,” Khamenei said.

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“The world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj,” he said, referring to the custodianship of Islam’s two holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina.

Unofficial tallies put the number who died last year at 2,426. Khamenei said almost 500 of them were from Iran. Saudi Arabia says a total of 769 people died.

Negotiations between the two governments on safety concerns for pilgrims broke down in May.

The hajj, which attracts millions of pilgrims every year, is an important revenue source for Saudi Arabia’s treasury. It has pushed the government to transform the once austere environs of the Kaaba, the central holy site around which Muslims circumambulate, into a steel and concrete metropolis with skyscrapers, shopping centers and garish hotels.

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But it is also a logistical nightmare. Hundreds of extra flights bring pilgrims from all over the world to Saudi Arabia, before they walk or are bused in the millions between the various sites of the Grand Mosque area. Pilgrims often become ill from heat, exhaustion or sicknesses borne by others. A fall could lead to death by trampling.

After Khamenei’s comments, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Abdul Aziz al Sheik, said “it was not surprising” that such comments would come from Iranians.

“We must understand those people are not Muslims,” he said in comments to local news outlet Makkah. “They are the sons of the Magi, and their hostility to the Muslims is an ancient affair, and especially to the [Sunnis].”

Magi are Zoroastrians, members of a pre-Islamic religion that was once dominant in Iran. Today, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s religious demographics are virtually mirror opposites of each other: Saudi Arabia is 85% to 90% Sunni and 10% to 15% Shiite. Iran is 90% to 95% Shiite and 5% to 10% Sunni.

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Although the hostility between the two denominations has a long history, it took on new significance during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It unleashed a brutal sectarian bloodletting between Iraq’s sects that drew in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and has grown into wars pitting their proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen against each other.

The acrimony in the hajj dispute threatens to extend beyond the borders of both countries.

General Secretary of the Gulf Cooperation Council Abdul Latif Zayani said Khamenei’s remarks on the hajj “were an incitement whose goals were exposed.”

“[It’s] a desperate attempt to politicize this great Islamic rite that brings the Islamic peoples together.”

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Bulos is a special correspondent.

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