Muslim pilgrims pray around the Ka'baa, which followers believe was built by Prophet Abraham and his son Ismael, at the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 2008. More than two million Muslims head to the holy city of Mecca to make the annual Hajj pilgrimage. File photo by Mohammad Kheirkhah/UPI | License Photo
QOM, Iran, May 12 (UPI) -- For the first time in 25 years, Iranians will not be able to participate in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, because of strained relations with Saudi Arabia stemming from the deaths of thousands of pilgrims last year.
Tehran announced Thursday that the pilgrimage will be canceled for Iranians because Saudi Arabia has declined to issue visas to Iranian citizens and could not guarantee their safety if they went, according to state officials.
The Iranians wanted Saudi Arabia to issue visas through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has handled Saudi business in Iran since diplomatic ties between the countries were severed in January, The BBC reported. Saudi Arabia refused, suggesting that Iranians travel to a third country to secure visas.
The two countries have always been rivals in the Persian Gulf region -- Iran is a majority Shiite Muslim nation, while Saudi Arabia is Sunni -- however the deaths of at least 2,000 people last year in Mecca, including 464 Iranians, have ratcheted up vitriol as Iran strongly criticized Saudi handling of stampedes during last year's Hajj.
Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, a senior Shiite leader in Iran, said his country first attempted to work with Saudi officials four months ago, sending a delegation which he said was improperly treated and no common ground was reached on proposals for visa applications, air transport and security for pilgrims from Iran.
"Saudi officials made no promises about issuing visas for the Iranian pilgrims and said that they should go to a third country to receive a Saudi visa, and this showed that the ground is not prepared for performing Hajj pilgrimage by Iranians this year," Ardebili said, according to a report from the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia started breaking down after last year's Hajj, with strong Iranian criticism of the Saudis. The governments also have been on opposite ends of conflicts in Yemen and Syria, on top of their long religious, political and military rivalry.
The execution of Sheik Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, a leader of the minority Shiite population in Saudi Arabia, caused protests in Iran and led to protesters storming two Saudi diplomatic sites. Saudi Arabia closed its diplomatic missions in Iran as a result, which led to the current issue over Iranian pilgrims' ability to attend the Hajj, the Washington Post reported.
"We did whatever we could but it was the Saudis who sabotaged," said Ali Jannati, Iran's minister of culture and Islamic guidance. "Now the time is lost."
The last time Iranian citizens did not attend the Hajj was 1989, after the country accused Saudi forces of previously killing more than 400 of its pilgrims.