Middle East

Hajj pilgrimage: Top Saudi cleric 'will not deliver' traditional sermon

File photo of Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh (24 March 2009) Image copyright AP
Image caption Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh has delivered the sermon since 1981, reports say

Saudi Arabia's top cleric will not deliver a traditional Hajj sermon to pilgrims for the first time in 35 years, reports say.

The speech from Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the grand mufti, marks the peak of the Muslim pilgrimage, which this year falls on Sunday.

A Saudi newspaper said the decision was "due to health reasons".

It follows controversy sparked by his remarks that Iranians were "not Muslims".

The comments came after Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced Saudi Arabia's management of the Hajj.

Tensions between the two countries have risen after a crush in last year's pilgrimage killed at least 2,426 people, including 464 Iranians, according to an unofficial count.

Sheikh al-Sheikh was appointed grand mufti in 1999, but Saudi newspaper Okaz said since 1981 he has delivered the sermon, from the Namira mosque in Mount Arafat.

He will be replaced by Sheikh Saleh bin Hamid, newspaper al-Riyadh reported, but there has been no official confirmation.

About 1.5 million Muslims have begun the Hajj, making the same journey as the Prophet Muhammad did about 1,400 years ago.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The pilgrimage is among the largest religious gatherings in the world

But tens of thousands of Shia Iranians are absent of this year's pilgrimage, after Iran and Saudi Arabia failed to reach agreement over Hajj arrangements amid a diplomatic row.

Iran believes the Saudis are not doing enough to secure the safety of the pilgrims, while the Saudis accuse Iran of making unreasonable demands.

The two countries do not have diplomatic relations and are at loggerheads over a series of regional issues including the conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

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