BEIRUT

Middle East

Saudi Arabia denies Syrians barred from hajj

  • An aerial view shows Muslim pilgrims walking around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage rituals on November 7, 2011. AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Wednesday denied allegations that the kingdom has barred citizens of war-hit Syria from performing the annual Muslim pilgrimage while local media said it has refused to increase hajj country quotas.

"The kingdom is currently working on finalising all measures needed in coordination with the concerned authorities to enable Syrian pilgrims to perform" the pilgrimage, hajj ministry undersecretary Hatem Qadi said.

The kingdom "provides them with all facilities" needed and "is giving special care to arrangements for the arrival of Syrians, knowing the difficult circumstances experienced by the brotherly people of Syria," Qadi told AFP.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia has barred Syrians from entering the country for the hajj.

"The Syrian High Committee of hajj has announced the halt to the pilgrimage this year, due to a failure to reach consensus with the Saudi authorities," SANA said.

The Syrian committee "took all necessary steps for the 2012 hajj season, but the relevant ministry in Saudi Arabia did not sign the accord that it does every year," it added.

The OPEC kingpin and other energy-rich nations of the Gulf have long demanded that President Bashar al-Assad step down while voicing support for the rebels calling for his ouster since March 2011.

The Syrian uprising, which has steadily militarised in the face of government repression, has left more than 27,000 dead since it erupted, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Civilians have borne the vast brunt of the violence.

The United Nations puts the toll at 20,000.

On Wednesday, local dailies in Saudi Arabia reported that Riyadh has rejected requests by 40 countries to increase their hajj quota this year because of development projects now under way in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

"The ministry has apologised to all countries which had asked to increase the number of their pilgrims this year... (because of) the giant development projects in Mecca and Medina which make it difficult to accommodate more numbers," hajj minister Bandar al-Hajjar was reported as saying.

Every Muslim country has a hajj quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants.

The quota system was imposed after an attempt by Saudi police to stifle a demonstration by Iranian pilgrims holding an anti-US and anti-Israel protest in 1987 sparked clashes in which 402 people died, including 275 Iranians.

Last year, nearly three million Muslim pilgrims performed the hajj, the world's largest annual gathering.

The authorities had not indicated that they would be able to accommodate more pilgrims this year.

Saudi King Abdullah has officially launched a $10.6-billion (7.3-billion-euro) extension project of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

The peak of this year's hajj is expected to take place on or around October 25.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be performed at least once in a lifetime by all those Muslims who are able to do so.

 
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