FROM war-ravaged Iraq and Syria to Ebola-hit Nigeria and dozens of other nations, pilgrims are converging on Makkah for the annual Hajj, the world’s largest Muslim gathering.
In a couple of days, about three million believers will congregate in the holy sites in and around Makkah to obey the commands of Almighty Allah.
“This is like a beautiful dream. I will never forget these moments,” Iraqi pilgrim Kazim Ibrahim, 69, said after reaching the holy city of Makkah.
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 self-declared Islamic State militants.
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.
Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal has branded IS “evil” and said the militants have distorted the image of Islam and Muslims.
Saudi Arabia 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.
The Kingdom is hardest hit by MERS, which last weekend claimed the life of a 27-year-old Saudi man in Taif, about 80 km east of Makkah. This brought to 317 the number of MERS deaths in Saudi Arabia since it first appeared in September 2012.
With such a large group of people concentrated in a limited area for a short time, “the Hajj season constitutes a factor increasing the likelihood of outbreaks or epidemics of infectious diseases,” acting Health Minister Adel Fakieh said in a statement.
The ministry has created a “command and control center” to direct its Hajj health operation.
The center assigned eight emergency consultant doctors to stand by for treatment of newly landed pilgrims’ heart attacks and other critical illnesses, said Fouad Hussain Sindi, the medical director at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.
In another first, the command center ordered 15 “isolation rooms” established at the airport, Sindi said.
Fewer than 30 people, including some with severe respiratory symptoms and Nigerian pilgrims with fever, were sent to isolation as a precaution and then released, Sindi told AFP in a telephone interview.
There have been no suspected cases of Ebola or MERS among pilgrims, he said.
Saudi Arabia has not allowed pilgrims to come from three West African nations hardest-hit by Ebola — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Sindi heads a team of 640 doctors, technicians and other medical staff at the airport. Among their tools are thermal cameras that detect high body temperatures.
The ministry advised elderly people and those with heart, kidney and other chronic diseases not to make the pilgrimage.
“But they come... The Kingdom gives them instructions but unfortunately in some countries they are not following the instructions.”
The biggest challenge is posed by pilgrims who do not wash hands or take other preventative health measures as advised, Sindi said. “We are worried” about the spread of infection, Sindi said.
In recent years, the pilgrimage has almost been 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.
It is among the five pillars of Islam and all capable Muslims must perform the Hajj at least once, the high point of their religious life.
After landing in Jeddah many grateful pilgrims prostrate themselves in a gesture of thanks to God, while some of the women ululate to express joy that their dream has been realized.
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