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Saudi Arabia Deports Iranian Pilgrims With 'Forged Visas'

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (center) throws stones at a column symbolizing the devil in Mecca.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry has confirmed that Saudi Arabia has deported 150 Iranian hajj pilgrims who were charged with entering the country with forged visas, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reports.

The Iranian pilgrims were arrested on October 31 after landing at the airport in Medina, the starting point for the annual five-day pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest city.

Many of the Iranian pilgrims have hit back at Saudi officials, claiming that their visas were issued by the Saudi Consulate in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi said on October 31 that the country's Foreign Ministry is negotiating with Saudi officials to resolve the issue.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the pilgrims should have applied to Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization for visas, but that some of them obtained visas by other means.

"There is a network that issues fake visas," he said. "Pilgrims should only get visas from the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization."

Mehmanparast said similar problems occurred last year. He has called on Saudi Arabia to introduce visa-free travel during the hajj.

Saudi officials have yet to comment on the reports, while the local media has not reported on the issue.

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia reached a new high following the United States' accusation last month that Iranian officials had plotted to murder Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington. The Iranian government has denied any involvement in the alleged plan.

Saudi officials say that any disruptions at the hajj will be dealt with "swiftly and rigorously." They hope to avoid a repeat of the violent clashes that occurred between Iranian Shi'a pilgrims and Saudi Arabian security forces in 1987 when more than 400 people died.

About 97,000 pilgrims have arrived in Medina from Iran this year.

The hajj will see pilgrims converge on Mecca for one week and perform a series of rituals, including walking counterclockwise seven times around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped building which acts as the Muslim direction of prayer; going to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil; and throwing stones in a ritual known as the "stoning of the devil." The rituals end with three days of celebrations across the Muslim world.