Hajj ‘dream’ nears

From 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 1400-year-old tradition of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

“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 Mr 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 group 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 IS “evil” and said the jihadists have distorted the image of Islam and Muslims.

Oil-rich 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 6200 people in West Africa and killed nearly half of them, according to the World Health Organization (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 kilometres (50 miles) 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.

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 centre” to direct its Hajj health operation. The centre 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 Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. In another first, the command centre ordered 15 “isolation rooms” established at the airport, Mr 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, Mr Sindi said 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. Every hajj visitor is given a health-screening card which must be filled in. It asks whether the traveller has been to an Ebola-infected country or had contact with an Ebola patient.