Thousands of soldiers protect Muslim hajj

Oct. 26, 2012 at 10:30 AM

MECCA, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Saudi officials say political protests will not disrupt the annual religious pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina known as the hajj.

As millions of pilgrims go through the steps of the hajj, they are being watched by thousands of Saudi soldiers, the Financial Times reported. Thursday was the climbing of Mount Arafat, the climactic ritual.

Tensions are high in the region this year because of the Syrian uprising and continued protests in some other countries. Iran backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the Saudis support the rebels. In Bahrain, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been sending aid to the ruling family.

Officials said those differences would be left behind during the hajj. The interior minister, Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, said this week members of all factions in Syria would be allowed into Saudi Arabia for the hajj.

"We are always ready and we take preventative security measures, regardless of what is happening in or outside the kingdom," said Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry's spokesman. "As the interior minister said, we will not allow anything to take place other than the pilgrimage."

In 1979, Saudi militants occupied the Grand Mosque during the hajj, and hundreds died before their rebellion was quelled, In 1987, protests by Iraqi pilgrims against the United States and Israel led to 402 deaths.

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