04/14/2015, 00.00
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Iran stops Makkah pilgrimages over sexual allegations involving two youths

The step follows allegations of sexual abuse of two young Iranians at Jeddah airport. Two flights with Iranian pilgrims were not allowed to land. Tensions between the two countries is rising over the Yemeni crisis.

Tehran (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Iran has suspended flights for pilgrims to Saudi Arabia over accusations that Saudi security officers assaulted two Iranian youths at the airport in Jeddah.

The incident allegedly occurred in March when two teenage boys were separated from their families during an airport security check.

Initially Iranian organisations claimed that the boys had been raped by Saudi airport officials. Now Iranian government officials are saying the two boys had been sexually harassed.

Yesterday, hundreds of people demonstrated (pictured) in front of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in the Iranian capital.

As a result of the incident, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani cancelled all minor pilgrimages, which according to religious tenets are recommended but not obligatory; however, it is unclear whether it will apply to the main pilgrimage of Hajj in September.

Iranian pilgrims have complained that the Saudi Embassy stopped issuing visas. And at least two flights transporting pilgrims from Iran to Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, were denied permission to land in recent days.

About 500,000 Iranians visit Makkah each year, often in trips booked long in advance.  “Until these guilty people are put on trial and punished, the umrah will be stopped and Iranian flights will be suspended,” Culture Minister Ali Jannati was quoted as saying.

Past pilgrimages (Hajj) saw serious accidents with hundreds of dead. In 1987 a demonstration against the United States and Israel was suppressed by Saudi police, with 402 people dead, mostly Iranian Shias. Following the incident, Tehran imposed a ban on the pilgrimage, which lasted for three years.

What is certain is that the alleged incident has exasperated tensions between the two regional rivals, already at odds over a number of regional wars, most notably the sectarian fighting in Yemen.

The Saudis are leading a ten-nation coalition in an air campaign, and are threatening a ground invasion to stop the advances of Houthi rebels, who they claim are supported by Tehran.

Some of the coalition’s members, particularly Egypt, have openly stressed the need to counter what they see as Iran’s increasing influence in the region. 

Yesterday, Iran further inflamed relations by urging the formation of a new Yemeni government and offering to assist in a political transition.

By contrast, Sunnis strongly support the return to power of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, ousted last month by Houthi rebels.

Last week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also unusually direct in his criticism of Saudi Arabia, saying its leaders are “inexperienced youths” and its policies are “like that of the Zionists in Gaza.” Saudi Arabia’s defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, the king's son, is only 35.

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