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Two million in Mecca for start of hajj

Two boys watched their mother pray at Mount Arafat, near Mecca in Saudi Arabia, amid the annual hajj ritual.MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

MECCA — Saudi Arabia sought to assure the public that the kingdom was safe and free of health scares as an estimated 2 million Muslims streamed into a sprawling tent city near Mecca on Thursday for the start of the Islamic hajj pilgrimage.

Earlier this year, Saudi authorities banned those from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea — the countries hardest hit in the Ebola epidemic — from getting visas as a precaution against the virus. The decision has affected a total of 7,400 pilgrims from the three countries.

Ebola is believed to have sickened about 7,100 people in West Africa and killed more than 3,300, according to the World Health Organization.


The hajj sees massive crowds from around the world gather at the Kaaba in Mecca as part of a five-day spiritual journey meant to cleanse the faithful of sin and bring them closer to God. All male pilgrims dress in simple, white robes as a sign of equality before God.

The kingdom has not found a single case of Ebola so far and is taking all measures to ensure the safety and health of the pilgrims, said Manal Mansour, the head of the Saudi Health Ministry’s department for prevention of infectious diseases.

‘‘The most important precaution that [the kingdom] has taken was to restrict visas from the affected areas,’’ she said.

Upon arrival to the kingdom, pilgrims were asked to fill out ‘‘medical screening cards with data’’ and asked about their travels in the past 21 days, Mansour said.

There were other health concerns related to the hajj earlier this year. The kingdom had to improve its antiinfection measures after it was hit by an upswing in the number of people who had contracted a respiratory virus known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in the spring. There have been more than 750 cases of MERS in the kingdom since 2012, of which 319 people died, including several health workers.


Major General Mansour Al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, told AP the kingdom also faces continuous threats from terrorists, but is prepared to ensure a safe hajj.

Saudi Arabia and four other Arab countries are taking part in US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State group and Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq and Syria. Militants have vowed revenge.

Al Qaeda militants launched a series of deadly attacks in Saudi Arabia aimed at toppling the monarchy a decade ago, though none were directed at Mecca. No major attacks have occurred in recent years during the hajj.

‘‘We have confronted Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and we have defeated them,’’ Turki said. ‘‘But of course at the same time being we are still considering the threat, which is a continuous threat, and therefore we have actually enforced our security readiness at all the borders.’’

Pilgrim Zaid Ajaz Amanea from the United Kingdom said he felt safe. ‘‘I don’t have to fear anything from anybody because I’m coming to God’s house,’’ he said.