Page last updated at 17:58 GMT, Monday, 14 September 2009 18:58 UK

Crackdown on Mecca prayer charges

By Sebastian Usher
BBC News

Thousansd of Muslims pilgrims outside the Grand Mosque, Mecca (archive)
The Grand Mosque at Mecca is one of the most holy sites in the Muslim faith

The authorities in Saudi Arabia are trying to stop the practice of charging a reservation fee for prayer spaces at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, reports say.

During Ramadan, when the mosque becomes particularly crowded, each space can sell for more than US $300 (£180).

Saudi newspapers say two people have been arrested for reserving and selling spaces at the holiest site in Islam.

Last week, a religious authority forbade the practice, and leaders said it contradicted the spirit of Islam.

Sheikhs and imams have said being at the front of the Grand Mosque is a privilege that should not be bought, but rather earned by dedication and effort.

Saudi beneficiaries

The Saudi media have accused expatriates of being behind the business.

Foreigners are usually first in line to be blamed when Saudi social or religious codes are threatened.

But Saudi papers make clear the beneficiaries are mainly Saudis, who show up just before prayers start to take the prime spots reserved for them.

Anecdotal evidence from the Grand Mosque suggests the going price for reserving a prime spot varies according to how long a space is reserved for.

The Saudi authorities have spent large amounts of money on enlarging and modernising the Grand Mosque.

Much of the work done was by the construction company owned by the Bin Laden family.

The mosque becomes massively crowded during Haj and Ramadan.

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