Karbala (Iraq): Exposing the Iranian regime's long cherished hitherto unsuccessful dream to undermine the status and sanctity of the Muslim holy places in Saudi Arabia, some of the Iranian Shiite have converged on the Iraqi city of Karbala for what they mischievously termed as an "alternative pilgrimage".
The Iranian Shiite move came at a time when over two million Muslims from over 164 countries of the world are moving towards plains of Arafat to perform Haj - the annual ritual to commemorate Prophet Ibrahim, his dignified wife Hager and their noble son Prophet Ismael (Peace be upon all of them).
According to media reports, the hard-liner Ali Khamenei regime is diverting Iranians to the shrine of Imam Hussein, one of the holiest sites for Iranian Shias, after it failed to seal an agreement with Saudi Arabia needed for Iranian Haj pilgrims to travel to the Kingdom.
Independent media reports said though some of the Iranians bought to the idea, many refused to follow the hardline Iranian regime's mischievous campaign.
Visiting the Imam Hussein shrine does not have the same religious significance as the Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam and therefore an obligation for Muslims who are able at least once in their lifetime. But followers of the Shiite sect feel more at home in Karbala than in Makkah.
“Karbala is normal for us. We always come here. This year they have blocked the path (to Makkah) and no one can go,” said Shukrullah, a white-haired Iranian pilgrim sitting on a rug near one of the gates to the mausoleum.
“It’s our duty to come here. This is an Islamic country. It’s good,” he said.
For the city, which lies about 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad, the extra influx of pilgrims is nothing out of the ordinary.
“We have prepared transport, accommodation and security. We are used to handling bigger occasion such as Arbaeen so we can handle this,” Karbala Governor Aqeel al-Turaihi told AFP.
Nasirah, a woman from the Iranian city of Ahvaz, has not yet performed the hajj and predicted that the substitution trip to Karbala could become a habit.
“In Iran, the pilgrims… pay to get a visa and go to Hajj. We in Iran wait a long time to get a chance to go. It can take 10 or 15 years,” she said.
“So I said let’s go for Arafah day in Karbala,” Nasirah said, referring to a prayer performed by Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Arafat plain on the second day of hajj.
“If we are in Karbala, it’s the house of God, it can be considered Hajj for us. So for the next few years, we will be coming to Karbala — what can we do?”
Contrary to the claims by the Iranian pilgrims, the Saudi Government does not charge any payment or fee to issue Hajj or Umrah visas.
Iran has accused Riyadh of incompetence and of failing to investigate the 2015 disaster or take satisfactory precautions for this year’s pilgrimage. In a stampede during Hajj last year, more than 300 pilgrims had died - majority of them being Iranians.
Later investigations revealed, the Iranians pilgrims were involved in security breach because of which the stampede had taken place.
The Saudi government accordingly played tough and refused to bow down to unwarranted demand by Iranians - who have a history of creating unrest during Hajj. As a result, agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia for Hajj could not be sealed.
A war of words has since escalated, with both countries’ top clerics exchanging sharp words — Iran’s Ali Khamenei calling Saudi monarchs a “cursed, evil family” and Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh saying Iranians were not real Muslims.
“The Saudi-Iranian conflict has forced Iranians to come to Karbala to visit the shrine of Imam Hussein,” Mussawi said, adding, “For the Shiites, this is worth 70 hajj.”
In a phone call with the Makkah daily, the Grand Mufti said the attack of Khamenei on the Kingdom and his criticism of the Kingdom’s Haj arrangements is “not surprising", according to Arab News.
“We have to understand that they are not Muslims; they are the followers of ‘majuws’ (a term that refers to Zoroastrians and those who worship fire). Their enmity toward Muslims is old and their main enemies are the followers of Sunnah (Sunnis),” he said.
He stressed that those who are trying to undermine or disrupt Saudi Arabia’s efforts to conduct a peaceful and secure Haj for pilgrims coming from across the world will not succeed in their nefarious designs.
Muslims of the world fully trust and acknowledge the services rendered by the Saudi government toward the Two Holy Mosques and the pilgrims, added the Grand Mufti.