BEIRUT, Lebanon — As Muslims from around the world head toward Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia and Iran have escalated their sectarian rivalry over which country represents the true Islam.
Iran unleashed the first barb Monday, when the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Saudi Arabia of deliberately killing pilgrims during last year’s hajj. He called for the world’s Muslims to reconsider Saudi control of the holy sites.
Saudi Arabia answered back on Tuesday, when the kingdom’s top cleric said that Iran’s leaders “are not Muslims.”
The spat underlines the deep religious and strategic rivalry between Shiite-led Iran and the Sunni royal family of Saudi Arabia that has put the two Middle Eastern powers on opposite sides of the wars in Yemen and Syria, and has them competing to undermine each other’s influence in the region.
The latest undiplomatic flare up comes just before the anniversary of a human crush during last year’s pilgrimage that left more than 2,400 people dead, including hundreds of Iranians, according to a count by The Associated Press. Saudi Arabia’s official death toll remains at 769, which it has not updated since just after the event.
The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in January after Iranian rioters stormed Saudi diplomatic missions to protest Saudi Arabia’s execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Talks aimed at allowing Iranian pilgrims to participate in this year’s hajj also broke down, so no Iranians will attend.
Multimedia Feature | How One of the Deadliest Hajj Accidents Unfolded A survivor’s story of how he was almost crushed to death at the 2015 hajj.
On Monday, Ayatollah Khamenei used his annual hajj message to attack the Saudis, accusing them of neglecting those wounded in last year’s stampede.
“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,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in comments published on his website. “They murdered them.”
Saudi officials have said that the crush occurred when two groups of pilgrims ran into each other on a narrow street. But the government has never released the findings of an investigation promised by Saudi leaders into why the crush happened.
Calling Saudi leaders “puny Satans” beholden to the United States, Ayatollah Khamenei also said that Saudi Arabia had “reduced the pilgrimage to a religious-tourist trip” and called for new management of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
“Because of these rulers’ oppressive behavior towards God’s guests, the world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj,” he said.
Saudi Arabia responded on Tuesday with a statement from the kingdom’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, who leads a council of Muslim scholars advising the king.
Sheikh Abdulaziz said it was “not surprising” that Iran would attack Saudi Arabia during the hajj season.
“We must understand that they are not Muslims,” he said in comments published in Saudi Arabia’s Mecca newspaper. He referred to Iranians as “sons of Majus,” using a term that refers to Zoroastrians and is often used as a derogatory term for Iranians. “Their hostility toward the Muslims is old,” he said.
(via NY Times)