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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 16:02 GMT
Saudi cleric blasts Israel
Pilgrims on Mount Arafat
About two million pilgrims gathered on Mount Arafat
The highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia has publicly denounced Israel and defended Islam as incompatible with terrorism in a sermon at the end of the Muslim Hajj, or pilgrimage.

Addressing more than two million pilgrims gathered on Mount Arafat, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, condemned what he said was Israel's killing of unarmed Palestinians.

It is unfair to associate Islam with terrorism

Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh
A group of Iranian pilgrims also held a rally condemning the United States and Israel, the Iranian news agency IRNA reported.

Before the start of the pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia said it would not tolerate any political speeches or anti-American demonstrations.

But BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says that while Saudi officials always insist politics must be kept out of the Hajj, they are anxious to defend Islam against perceived attack and to show their commitment to Palestinian rights.

Iranians hold demonstrations against Israel and the US every year at the Hajj, in a "disavowal of pagans ceremony".

Terror links dismissed

There has been a rise in tension between the Muslim world and the West since the 11 September attacks on America carried out by mainly Saudi hijackers.

Pilgrims head past Namera mosque, outside Mecca
The shiekh urged the world's Muslims to unite

Sheikh Abdul Aziz said attempts to correlate Islam and terrorism were unjustified.

"Islam orders respecting people's right, money, honour and lives... and instructs against killing children, women and the unarmed," he said.

"It is unfair to associate Islam with terrorism," said the shiekh, urging Muslims to unite against the "enemies of Islam".

The cleric singled out Israel for criticism, condemning its policies as "injustice, aggression and terrorism".

Thousands of Saudi police lined the route to Mount Arafat and helicopters hovered overhead as a sea of pilgrims made the short journey earlier from the nearby valley of Mina.

As temperatures exceeded 30 degrees Celcius (86 Fahrenheit), pilgrims spent the day praying for mercy at a site where the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon 14 centuries ago.

Iranian anger

In Iran, meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei criticised the United States in a speech for the end of the Hajj, which was carried on Iranian radio.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei
Khamenei said the US wanted to dominate the world

He said the US was using the issue of fighting terrorism as a pretext for "hegemonistic plans... to dominate and control the wealth and vital resources of other nations".

Relations between the United States and Iran have worsened since US President George Bush characterised Iran as part of an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address last month.

The BBC's Riz Khan
"It's quite a calm and peaceful time here"
See also:

20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Muslim pilgrims on the move
15 Feb 02 | Middle East
Imams call for trouble-free Hajj
08 Feb 02 | Middle East
Eye-scanners installed for Hajj security
18 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghan pilgrims get airlift for Hajj
13 Feb 02 | Middle East
40 die in Saudi Hajj crash
05 Mar 01 | Middle East
Hajj perils, ancient and modern
28 Feb 01 | Middle East
Pilgrims gather for Hajj
10 Feb 00 | Middle East
What is the Hajj?
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