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Saudi minister insists regional unrest will not affect hajj

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The annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca will not be affected by events in Syria and elsewhere across the region, Saudi Arabia’s interior minister said Saturday.

“I don’t expect pilgrims or the pilgrimage to be affected by what is taking place elsewhere, whether Syria or any other place,” the minister, Prince Ahmad bin Abdul Aziz, told reporters.

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When asked if pro-regime Syrians could infiltrate the pilgrims coming into the kingdom, which has repeatedly voiced support for the rebels, and cause trouble, Prince Ahmad said that “those coming to hajj are Muslims and Muslims would not hurt one another, especially not during hajj.”

However, such an act “would have very bad effects,” he warned, adding that “whoever tries to use hajj for political aims will be sent back home.”

The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon said Wednesday that the kingdom will grant visas to Syrians in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan — home to thousands of refugees — wishing to perform the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, set to begin Wednesday.

The majority of Syria’s population is Sunni, while the regime is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported in September that Saudi Arabia has barred Syrians from entering the country for the hajj. The kingdom had however denied the report.

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On Saturday the interior minister reiterated that “the kingdom did not prevent the Syrian government from sending pilgrims and did not deny entry to any Syrian or Muslim pilgrim wanting to perform hajj, except to those who applied late.”

He also said that the kingdom is not worried that Iranian pilgrims would cause any trouble.

“We don’t expect any” unrest to be caused by Iranians. “The Iranians have assured us that they are as concerned about the comfort of pilgrims as we are,” he said.

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A Saudi security chief warned earlier this month that the Muslim kingdom will not tolerate any attempt to exploit the hajj pilgrimage to stage political rallies, as Iranians have in the past, provoking deadly clashes with police.

Iranians annually stage a “repudiation of polytheists” rally, a ritual promoted by the late Islamic republic’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to denounce the West and Israel.

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Saudi security forces have confronted Iranian pilgrims several times in the past for holding anti-US and anti-Israeli protests.

In 1987, police efforts to stifle such a demonstration sparked clashes in which 402 people died, including 275 Iranians.

Iranian pilgrims have since held their rallies in tents without provoking clashes with security forces in the Sunni-dominated kingdom.

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More than 1.6 million pilgrims have until now arrived in Mecca to perform hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam and should be done by every able Muslim at least once in a life time.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]


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