In a rare show of public outrage, Saudi Arabia has issued a strongly worded response to Iran's charges that Iranian Muslims will be denied the right to make the coming hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca.
The hajj, which will be in September this year, is used as an enormous public-relations event by the Saudis. Charges that Saudi Arabia is denying the right of access to Islam's holiest sites to any Muslim has undercut an image the House of Saud has worked to build for itself ever since the 1920s, when Abdul Aziz ibn Saud wrested Mecca and Medina from the control of the Sherif of Mecca.
Much of this reputation is deserved. The House of Saud has rescued the pilgrim from frequent danger and provided him with a well-ordered and secure religious event.
As the responsible guardians of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, the House of Saud has donned the unofficial mantle of the leader of the Islamic world. In early July King Fahd, in his Eid al-Fitr speech observing the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting, spoke not only to Saudi Arabia but the Islamic nation.
Saudi Arabia uses this leadership role as a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Feeling strapped between the two superpowers, the Kingdom has for the last several years attempted to build a third block - the Islamic block - with Saudi Arabia as its leader. This is why the challenge from Iran cannot be ignored.
Ever since the Iranian revolution, the hajj has become the stage for Iranian political demonstrations in support of the Ayatollah Khomeni. The Saudis have always played down the disturbances, refusing to acknowledge any disruptions.
This year the Saudis have been particularly anxious about the hajj because of the intensity of the Iran-Iraq war and the level of support that Saudi Arabia has given to Iraq. Several days before Iran unleashed its charges, Saudi Arabia announced that for convenience, separate ''companies'' had been formed under the auspices of the government to handle pilgrims from three areas - Europe, Southwest Asia, and Iran.
Quotas were to be set on the number of pilgrims each of these companies was equipped to handle. Previously, government guides had simply been assigned to assist pilgrims in the proper order of the religious rites. There could be little doubt the real target of the new organizational system was Iran. Apparently this precipitated the Iranian charges.
In a lengthy statement released last month, Prince Naif, minister of the interior, denied Iranian allegations that Saudi Arabia was deliberately restricting Iran's pilgrims. Iranian pilgrims, within the prestated numbers, would be welcomed this year as they had been in the past, he said.
But the government has made it clear it would not ''abandon its duties to safeguard the peace and tranquillity of the pilgrimage,'' and would not tolerate disturbances by Iranian pilgrims, according to the Saudi newspaper Arab News.
The surprise in the statement was the itemization of charges against Iranian pilgrims extending back over the last three years.
According to the government's statement, the behavior of the Iranian pilgrims has included political and ''demagogic activities in contravention of Islamic principles.'' They have been found distributing pro-Khomeini pamphlets, vilifying the Kingdom's government, and calling for revolution against any Islamic or Arab government that does not conform to the principles of the Iranian revolution. Charges were also made that demonstrators attempted to carry firearms and concealed knives into the Holy Haram, Islam's holiest shrine.
The Saudi statement went on to claim that over the last three years, the Iranians held mass meetings within the courtyards of the mosques at Mecca and Medina and interfered with some pilgrims' performance of the specific steps required in the hajj. Slogans were shouted in the streets of the holy cities, calling for the deification of the Ayatollah Khomeini. This was considered by the Saudis to be the most direct attack on Islam - a contradiction of the oneness of God, or strict monotheism.
The charges hold profound meaning for the world's Muslims. The hajj, one of the five pillars of faith in Islam, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. It is recognized by Muslims as the most emotional experience in the religion. The introduction of politics, the violation of the sanctity of the holiest mosques in Islam, and the elevation of one man in a religion which does not even recognize a formal clergy is tantamount to heresy.
For the House of Saud, the ultimate heresy is the Iranian claim that any form of monarchy is incompatible with Islam and Saudi Arabia's people must rise up against their rulers.