REUTERS - Saudi Arabia is prepared to receive Palestinian pilgrims who arrive late for the haj pilgrimage which starts this week, an official said.
Palestinian pilgrims bound for the holy city of Mecca were prevented from leaving the Gaza Strip via Egypt on Saturday. The enclave's Hamas Islamist rulers and the rival Fatah leadership in the West Bank blamed each other for the hold-up.
"We hope Palestinian pilgrims will be able to carry out this Islamic duty and this is up to the Palestinian authorities," Interior Minister Prince Nayef said late on Wednesday after inspecting sites near Mecca in comments carried in state media.
"We welcome them at any time. Even if they don't arrive until the eighth day, we will receive them," he said referring to Saturday, the eighth day of the Islamic month and when pilgrims begin to move from Mecca to the plain of Arafat.
Saudi Arabia has said it granted visas to Palestinians who registered for the haj through the Palestinian Authority, controlled by President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction.
Some 3,000 Gazans tried to arrange visas through Hamas, which seized control of the enclave last year.
Hamas is appealing to Saudi Arabia to give them visas and some leaders say they will prevent anyone leaving Gaza for the pilgrimage unless it does so.
"It does not concern us if they are Hamas or any other group. We look at Palestinian pilgrims as Muslim, no matter what their political affiliations are, we welcome the pilgrims," the prince said.
He said King Abdullah had granted Palestinians extra visas but it was not clear how many or whether this came in response to the problems in Gaza.
Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have worked to promote an accord between the Palestinians to end a schism that has hamstrung Abbas's efforts to secure a peace settlement with Israel.
Around 2 million pilgrims are expected to have arrived in the kingdom by Saturday for the haj, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim at least once in their lifetime.