01/04/2006, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA

Bird flu and terrorism cast a shadow over pilgrimage to Makkah

Some 2.5 million people from around the world are expected for Hajj which begins on January 8. Saudi authorities are on maximum alert. Preventive measures have been taken against contagious diseases such as cholera but little has been done for the bird flu.

Riyad (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In addition to terrorism, Saudi Arabia has to worry about the Avian or bird flu this year as it gets ready to receive some 2.5 million pilgrims for Hajj in Makkah. The annual pilgrimage is one Islam's five pillars that every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it should undertake during his or her lifetime.

Hajj rituals begin on January 8, the eighth day in the month of Dhu Al-Hajja, the final month in the Islamic lunar calendar which began last Sunday.

Already about 1.5 million pilgrims have arrived from around the world. Today is the last day for people to fly in for the event and should see many more arrivals. Any plane carrying pilgrims after that date has to pay a fine of 200,000 riyals (US$ 53,000). For pilgrims travelling by boat or overland the deadline expires tonight.

Terrorist attacks are at the top of Saudi security concern. Any incident might cause panic and spark a deadly stampede as happened in the past, leaving hundreds dead.

A 10,000-strong force has been mobilised in Makkah. Soldiers protect the perimeter of Jeddah airport, whilst security force personnel man checkpoints along the highways to Makkah and Madinah, Islam's second holiest site, which many pilgrims will visit as well.

The main concern though at the airport and in the other points of arrival is disease. Special measures have been undertaken for example in the case of pilgrims from certain African countries affected by endemic diseases such as cholera and meningitis or from the Indian subcontinent and neighbouring countries like Yemen.

"Once a plane from a plagued country lands, we dispatch two inspectors," said Mohammed al-Harthi, director of Jeddah's health control centre in. "Inspectors collect a written certificate from the pilot confirming that the plane has been disinfected and check for empty spray canisters as proof."

Passengers are then bussed to a special pilgrims' terminal where they are required to produce a clean bill of health from their home country and are given supplementary vaccinations against meningitis.

However, a glossy poster at the entrance to the airport clinic seems to be the only measure taken against the spread of the avian flu. The clinic does never the less carry drugs like tamiflu.

Despite the preventive measures, many pilgrims cover their mouths and noses with masks in public spaces.

However they get to Saudi Arabia, all pilgrims are Makkah-bound. There, in the early hours of January 8, they will travel to the nearby town of Mina, about 10 kilometres away.

In this arid valley, a tent city will emerge to house the pilgrims who will spend the day in prayer. Hajj will thus have begun.

At dawn of the following day, pilgrims will walk to the Mount of Mercy, another place of prayer, to ask God for his forgiveness. The function symbolises waiting for the Final Judgement and is the key moment of the pilgrimage

Upon returning to Mina, the faithful will sacrifice a goat in remembrance of Abraham's submission to the Will of God and Isaac's sacrifice setting off celebrations for Eid el-Adha on January 10. As the last act of the pilgrimage, in Mina people will throw pebbles at the stone pillars that represent the devil to show their rejection of evil.

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