Iran does not want the Hajj to pass safely for the millions who take part, a Saudi minister said, in an escalating spat between the two regional rivals over the annual Muslim pilgrimage.
"Iran has great animosity against Muslims because it does not want the Hajj to pass safely or have it free of politics, slogans or political and sectarian exploitation," Saudi Minister of Religious Affairs Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh said on his website.
"A Muslim cannot accept that Hajj should be used for upholding slogans or for interests of a certain sect or faction," he said in remarks carried by the English-language newspaper Saudi Gazette on Thursday.
A day earlier Iranian President Hassan Rowhani said that Saudi Arabia should be punished for its role in a deadly stampede at last year's pilgrimage, accusing the Saudis of incompetence in its handling of the disaster.
Riyadh and Tehran have traded blame for a stampede at the 2015 Hajj that claimed around 2,000 lives, based on a dpa tally and other independent reports. The Saudis had placed the death toll at 769.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, earlier criticized the Saudis as unbelievers and questioned the country's role in administering the annual pilgrimage.
Bahrain, a Gulf ally of Saudi Arabia, on Thursday stepped into the fray. "We reject Iran’s continued attempts to politicize the Hajj season," Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khaled bin Ahmed, told an Arab League meeting in Cairo.
The Hajj begins this week in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. Muslims are expected to perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime, provided they are fit enough and have the financial means to do so.
Iranians are unable to go to Saudi Arabia for this year's Hajj due to a row between both countries on pilgrimage regulations.
Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran back opposite sides in wars in Syria and Yemen.
Earlier this year, Riyadh cut off diplomatic ties with Iran after angry Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in protest against Saudi authorities' execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
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