At the cemetery where the Prophet Muhammad’s family is buried, an Iranian Shia Muslim pilgrim overcome with emotion was jerked by a Saudi soldier, who barked a sharp order: “Stop crying!”
The soldier, a gun at his hip, then hovered over the pilgrim as he wrapped up his prayers to make sure he didn’t start weeping again.
The Baqee cemetery is where the bitter rivalry between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran gets personal.
Iranians and other Shias flock to the graves to pay respects to several revered descendants of Islam’s prophet, while Saudi soldiers and morality police try to prevent dramatic displays of fervent praying or weeping.
Shias’ prayer books are snatched away, they are ordered to read only Saudi-approved verses written on billboards at the site, and groups of worshippers are broken up.
Part of the reason for the heavy restrictions is religious.
Saudi Arabia’s strict version of Sunni Islam, called Wahhabism, considers customs like crying — or even praying — at gravesites and revering saints repugnant because it smacks of idolatry. In fact, many Wahhabi clerics consider Shias heretics. But beyond the religious practices lies politics.
The two countries have been locked in a struggle for influence across the Middle East.
Saudi forces have been fighting for more than a month with Shia rebels on the border with Yemen who it claims are backed by Tehran. The kingdom accuses Iran of fueling conflicts in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq with its support for militant groups.
Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich U.S. ally, also appears increasingly worried over Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West.
Mahdi Habibolahi, an Iranian who visited the Baqee after performing his hajj pilgrimage last month, sees a message in the harassment he and fellow Shias face. “Maybe they want to give us a warning, that you are different you should be careful, you shouldn’t interfere (in the region’s politics),’’ said Habibolahi, an English teacher.
The Baqee is on a large piece of land in front of the mosque that encloses the Prophet’s tomb in Medina.