Hajj nears for millions of Muslims in the world
RIYADH - Agence France-Presse
Thousands of pilgrims arrived in Mecca for the annual hajj. AA PhotoFrom war-ravaged Iraq and Syria to Ebola-hit Nigeria and dozens of other nations, pilgrims are converging on Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj, the world’s largest Muslim gathering.
From early October, close to two million believers will congregate to follow the 1,400-year-old tradition of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.
“This is like a beautiful dream. I will never forget these moments,” Iraqi pilgrim Kazim Ibrahim, 69, said after reaching the holy city of Mecca.
While Ibrahim and other pilgrims are united by a common religious bond, this year’s hajj comes with Muslim nations drawn together by widespread revulsion toward the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadists.
Saudi Arabia and four other Arab states have joined Washington in launching air strikes in Syria against the militants, who have declared a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria and committed brutal atrocities.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has branded ISIL “evil” and said the jihadists have distorted the image of Islam and Muslims.
Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holiest sites, where it is waging a different kind of battle to protect pilgrims from two deadly viruses, Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
The deadliest Ebola epidemic on record has infected more than 6,200 people in west Africa and killed nearly half of them, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Saudi Arabia is the country hardest hit by MERS, which last weekend claimed the life of a 27-year-old Saudi man in Taif, about 80 kilometers east of Mecca. This brought to 317 the number of MERS deaths in Saudi Arabia since it first appeared in September 2012.
Research by Saudi scientists indicates that camels play a role in the transmission of the virus to humans. In June the WHO said a surge in MERS cases had receded but countries should remain vigilant ahead of pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia.
Every hajj visitor is given a health-screening card which must be filled in. It asks whether the traveler has been to an Ebola-infected country or had contact with an Ebola patient.
Marred by stampedes, fires and other deadly incidents in the past, the hajj has in recent years been almost incident-free thanks to multi-billion-dollar safety projects by the authorities.
Saudi media said 85,000 security and civil defense officers will be on duty for the hajj, which lasts five days.