Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, located in the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 2, 2016
Anadolu Agency—Getty Images
September 8, 2016 2:48 AM EDT

A war of words between the religious leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia continues to escalate in the approach to hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

Iranian citizens will not be participating in this year’s pilgrimage, after security disputes stymied an agreement that would have enabled them to join.

Referring to a stampede last year that killed at least 750 people, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Monday criticized Saudi Arabia’s management of the Islamic world’s holiest site, which lies within Saudi borders.

Khamenei said the Saudi ruling family “does not deserve to be in charge and manage the holy sites,” Agence France-Presse reports.

Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz al-Sheik in turn told reporters that Iran’s leaders “are not Muslims,” according to a local report cited by al-Jazeera. “They are children of the Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is ancient,” he reportedly said, referring to a pre-Islamic Persian religion.

Saudi Arabia and Iran follow different branches of Islam — Sunni and Shi‘ite, respectively — and hold deeply opposing views on Middle Eastern politics.

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which every able-bodied Muslim must undertake at some point in their lifetime. The pilgrimage, which will begin on Friday and conclude on Sunday, attracts millions of people each year.

[AFP, al-Jazeera]

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