Iran sees progress in hajj talks with Saudi Arabia

AFP , Sunday 5 Mar 2017

Iran said on Sunday there had been progress in talks with Saudi Arabia on allowing citizens of the Islamic republic to join this year's hajj pilgrimage, despite some remaining issues.

Iranians were barred from attending last year's hajj after the two countries severed diplomatic ties and failed to agree on security measures.

"Most of the questions up for discussion have been resolved and a couple of issues are remaining," the ISNA news agency quoted Ali Ghazi Askar, the Iranian supreme leader's representative for hajj affairs, as saying.

"If those questions are resolved, we hope pilgrims will soon be sent to Saudi Arabia," he added, without giving details.

Talks have been ongoing since an Iranian delegation travelled to Saudi Arabia on February 22.

Last year marked the first time in nearly three decades that Iran was barred from the pilgrimage, considered one of the most important religious obligations for able Muslims.

A key issue has been compensation for the families of hundreds of people killed in a stampede during the 2015 hajj. Iran says 464 of its citizens died in the disaster.

Ghazi Askar said Iran had also raised the sexual assault of two Iranian teenage boy pilgrims by Saudi police in Jeddah airport earlier that year.

Tehran suspended pilgrimages to Saudi holy places -- except during the hajj period -- in protest at the incident.

"The culprits have been sentenced by Saudi Arabia to four years in prison and 1,000 lashes and dismissed from duty," Ghazi Askar said.

"If these problems are resolved and it becomes clear for us that they have been punished, the lesser hajj will also be restored."

The lesser hajj -- or "umrah" -- refers to pilgrimages outside the hajj period, which lasts around five days and varies depending on the Islamic calendar.

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