Saudi officials say political protests will not disrupt the annual religious pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina known as the haj.

As millions of pilgrims go through the steps of the haj, they are being watched by thousands of Saudi soldiers, the Financial Times reported. Thursday was the climbing of Mt. Arafat, the climactic ritual.

Tensions are high in the region this year because of the Syrian uprising and continued protests in some other countries. Iran backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the Saudis support the rebels. In Bahrain, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been sending aid to the ruling family.

Officials said those differences will be left behind during the haj. The interior minister, Prince Ahmed bin Abdelaziz, said earlier this week members of all factions in Syria will be allowed into Saudi Arabia for the haj.

“We are always ready and we take preventative security measures, regardless of what is happening in or outside the kingdom,” said General Mansour al-Turki, the interior ministry’s spokesman. “As the interior minister said, we will not allow anything to take place other than the pilgrimage.”

In 1979, Saudi militants occupied the Grand Mosque during the haj, and hundreds died before their rebellion was quelled, In 1987, protests by Iraqi pilgrims against the United States and Israel led to 402 deaths.

Source: UPI