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World Iran halts pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia as tensions rise

Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest against the Saudi-led coalition strikes on Yemen, in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Monday, April 13, 2015.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Iran suspended all umrah pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia on Monday amid growing diplomatic tensions between the two countries, state television reported.

Iran's Culture Ministry made the decision over alleged abuse suffered by two male Iranian pilgrims travelling through Saudi Arabia's Jeddah airport in March as they tried to return home, the station reported. Culture Ministry spokesman Hossein Nooshabadi said the pilgrimage would be suspended until the Saudi government "applies a strong attitude" to the case.

The alleged abuse, the details of which have not been publicly disclosed, sparked unauthorized protests at the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Saturday. Public anger has grown over the incident, with President Hassan Rouhani ordering an investigation and Iran's Foreign Ministry summoning a Saudi diplomat for an explanation.

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But what actually happened remains unclear. On Monday, a representative of Iran's top leader on hajj affairs downplayed the case, saying the pilgrims weren't abused, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

"In the incident, no abuse has happened and the two policemen who attempted abuse were identified and detained by Saudi police," Ali Ghaziasgar was quoted as saying.

Some 500,000 Iranians visit Saudi Arabia each year for the umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites.

Another 100,000 Iranian pilgrims annually travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj Islam's main pilgrimage – which comes after the holy month of Ramadan and is scheduled to take place in September this year. Hajj is a ritual required of every able-bodied Muslim at least once in a lifetime.

Saudi officials haven't commented publicly on the dispute. Earlier this month, aviation authorities in the kingdom turned away an Iranian plane carrying pilgrims, saying it did not have permission to use the country's airspace, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

Tensions between Shia-majority Iran and the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia have escalated over Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen targeting Shia rebels known as Houthis. The U.S., Western countries and Sunni Arab nations involved in the Saudi-led coalition have accused Iran of supporting the Houthis militarily, something both the rebels and the Islamic Republic deny.

On Monday, hundreds of students staged another demonstration in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, protesting the air-strike campaign in Yemen.

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Shiites are considered infidels by a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam widely followed in the kingdom. Shia pilgrims previously have said they were prevented from praying at shrines during the hajj season.

Politics play a part as well, especially since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran has insisted in the past that its pilgrims be allowed to hold "disavowal of infidels" ceremonies – rallies denouncing Israel and Saudi ally the United States.

Saudi Arabia bans such demonstrations at hajj and in 1987, one such rally led to clashes with Saudi security forces in which more than 400 pilgrims, mostly Iranians, were killed. Iran prevented pilgrims from attending hajj for three years after the killings.

Iranian pilgrims still hold small-scale "disavowal of infidels" ceremonies during the hajj.

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