Saudi Arabia: Calls to ‘internationalize’ holy sites ‘declaration of war’

Riyadh accuses Qatar of keeping its citizens from hajj, but Doha says Saudi putting too many restrictions on Qatari pilgrims, as religion mixes into Gulf rift

Muslim pilgrims from all around the world circle around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi city of Mecca on on September 9, 2016, a day before the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage.  (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
Muslim pilgrims from all around the world circle around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Saudi city of Mecca on on September 9, 2016, a day before the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

Saudi Arabia said Sunday that Doha was attempting to “internationalize” Muslim holy sites and politicize the hajj pilgrimage, saying that the calls amounted to a “declaration of war.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Sunday that, “Qatar’s request to internationalize the holy sites is an aggressive act and a declaration of war against the kingdom.”

“We reserve the right to respond to any party working in the field of internationalization of the holy sites,” Al-Jubeir told the Saudi-financed news site Al Arabiya.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani denied that any officials from his country had called to take Mecca holy sites out of Saudi Arabia’s hands, even as Doha claimed that Saudis were keeping Qatari Muslims from attending the annual pilgrimage with unreasonable demands.

“We are tired of responding to false information and stories invented from nothing,” al-Thani told Doha based news channel Al Jazeera.

The back and forth came as an ongoing rift between Qatar and other Gulf states threatened to jeopardize Qataris’ ability to attend the hajj, which takes palce this year from August 30 to September 4.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been boycotting Qatar since June 5, accusing it of backing extremist groups and of ties to Shiite Iran, in the region’s worst diplomatic crisis in years.

Al Arabiya reported that nobody from Qatar had yet arrived in Mecca for the hajj. The news site also claimed that Qatar was banning its citizens from attending the pilgrimage, “despite the Kingdom’s constant calls welcoming them.”

The Qatari authorities hit back on Sunday, accusing Riyadh of mixing politics and religion and jeopardizing the Qatari pilgrimage to Mecca by refusing to guarantee their security.

Al Jazeera news said that Riyadh refused to guarantee the safety for some 20,000 registered Qatari pilgrims, forcing Qatar to suspend registration.

On July 20, Riyadh had assured Doha that Qatari nationals wishing to travel to Mecca were welcome, but imposed certain restrictions on their arrival.

Qatar said that Saudi Arabia said Qatari citizens need to get visas on arrival in Jeddah or Medina, their sole points of entry in the kingdom. They must depart to the kingdom from Doha, making it difficult for Qataris based abroad.

Qatar’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on Saturday filed a complaint with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief over what it called a “stark violation of international laws and agreements that guarantee the right to worship.”

The NHRC added that it was “extremely concerned over [Saudi Arabia] politicizing religious rituals and using [Hajj] to achieve political gains.”

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt broke ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing the emirate of fostering Islamist extremist groups and of ties to Saudi arch-rival Iran. Qatar has denied the allegations.

The hajj pilgrimage is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life. Millions of faithful come to the Kaaba in Mecca to circle it, to reach out to its golden gate and to pray. To touch the Kaaba, the metaphorical house of God, offers the faithful a moment of physical contact with Islam’s holiest site on a pilgrimage intended to erase past sins.

Saudi Arabia and its allies Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic ties and imposed sanctions on Doha in June, including the closure of their airspace to Qatari airlines.

The four Arab states accuse Qatar of supporting extremists and of growing too close to Shiite-dominated Iran, the regional arch-rival of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-led bloc in June issued the list of demands for the lifting of sanctions, including the termination of Al Jazeera, the downgrading of ties to Iran and the closure of a Turkish military base in the country.

AFP and AP contributed to this report.

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