DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei renewed criticism of Saudi Arabia over how it runs the haj after a crush last year killed hundreds of pilgrims, and suggested Muslim countries think about ending Riyadh’s control of the annual pilgrimage.
“Because of these (Saudi) rulers’ oppressive behavior toward God’s guests (pilgrims), the world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of haj,” Khamenei said in a message carried by his Website and Iran’s state media.
“They must not let those rulers escape responsibility for the crimes they have caused throughout the world of Islam,” Khamenei said, listing Saudi Arabia’s involvement in conflicts in areas including Iraq, Yemen and Syria on the side of forces Iran opposes.
Custodian of Islam’s most revered places in Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on organizing haj, one of the five pillars of Islam which every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to is obliged to undertake at least once.
Its prestige was damaged by the 2015 disaster, in which Riyadh said 769 pilgrims were killed – the highest haj death toll since a crush in 1990. Counts of fatalities by countries who repatriated bodies showed that over 2,000 people may have died in the crush, more than 400 of them Iranians.
Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, blamed the disaster on organizers’ incompetence. Pilgrims from Iran will be unable to attend haj, which starts on Sept. 11, this year after talks between the two countries on arrangements broke down in May.
An official Saudi inquiry has yet to be published, but authorities suggested at the time some pilgrims ignored crowd control rules.
Riyadh accuses Tehran of destabilizing Arab states and spreading sectarianism by backing militias in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen and fomenting unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Iran denies those charges.