MECCA Saudi authorities swiftly dispersed hundreds of Syrian pilgrims who staged a small protest near Mecca on Sunday to demand the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad and denounce what they called the international failure to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Saudi Arabia prohibits any political activities at the annual haj pilgrimage, where some three million people from all over the world converged this year to perform one of the five pillars of Islam.
The protesters marched with rebel flags toward the Jamarat Bridge in Mina, east of the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca at dawn on Sunday before Saudi police moved in and ordered them to disperse, a Reuters witness said.
Two police vehicles drove slowly in the direction of the protesters with sirens wailing as officers asked the crowd through loudspeakers to leave the area. The protesters swiftly dispersed and melted into thousands of other pilgrims in the area, the witness said. No one was hurt in the incident.
Although Saudi Arabia has led Arab efforts to isolate Assad and has supported the rebels with money and logistics, it wants to make sure the haj remains free of politics.
Responding to a question about the protest, Mecca Governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal said he was not aware of the incident.
"This congregation (haj) is not political, economic or anything else. It is for worshiping God," he said, echoing statements made by other Saudi officials in recent days.
The haj pilgrimage is one of the Muslim faith's so-called five pillars and a religious duty for all Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime if they are able. It started on Wednesday and ends on Tuesday.
Prince Khaled declared the pilgrimage a success, saying that all rites have been conducted peacefully without any major incident. He put the final number of people who attended haj this year at 3.6 million people.
The Saudi Health Ministry, in a report on the haj, said there had been no major outbreaks of disease reported despite the large number of people, thanks to strict health precautions.
This year's haj took place against a backdrop of divisions among Muslims, with Shi'ite Iran and U.S.-allied Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar backing opposing sides in Syria's civil war.
At Sunday's protest, dozens of security guards already deployed in the area stood by without interfering.
"Syria lives forever in spite of you, Assad," the protesters shouted as they streamed past a giant wall at Jamarat Bridge used for the ritual stoning of the devil, one of the main rites of the haj.
"We don't want Bashar, all Syrians raise your arms," others shouted.
The Syrian crisis had earlier been evident at Mount Arafat, scene of another of the haj's main rites, where some Syrians held up rebel flags on Thursday despite a call by Saudi Arabia's grand mufti to avoid national and factional slogans.
"We want to make our voices heard because no one seems to listen to us," said Sabri, 27, a Syrian who lives in Saudi Arabia, as he held up the rebel black, white and green flag.
"This is not a political protest. It's more of a humanitarian demonstration because the Syrian question has become a humanitarian one."
The imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque called on Arabs and Muslims on Friday to take "practical and urgent" steps to stop the bloodshed in Syria, which has killed some 30,000 people. He also urged governments across the world to assume their moral responsibility toward the conflict.
Saudi Arabia has instructed its embassies to issue haj permits for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but most of the Syrians who made it to Mecca were those who live in the Gulf Arab region.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)