Virus fears hit haj pilgrim flow

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A security official wearing a protective mask keeps an eye on cars at a checkpoint between Jeddah and Mecca before the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimageMECCA: Muslims from across the world poured Sunday into a sprawling tent city in the Saudi desert before the start of the annual Islamic haj pilgrimage, but the number of the pilgrims this year has been reduced in part by concerns over a respiratory virus centered in the Arabian peninsula.

More than 2 million pilgrims —about 1 million fewer than last year —streamed from the holy city of Mecca to a huge tent encampment in Mina about 5km away to begin preparations for the haj with a day of prayer and supplication.

Saudi authorities sharply cut back on the number of visas for many groups such as the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses as a precaution against a new respiratory virus related to Sars that has killed more than 50 people in the kingdom this past year. The Saudi health minister, Abdullah al-Rabiah, said that no cases of the coronavirus infection have been detected among pilgrims. Further visa restrictions were imposed because of massive construction projects underway in Mecca.

Fears of outbreak among pilgrims have prompted Saudi authorities to reduce quotas by 20% for haj visas for each country this year.

Muslims must make haj once in their lives. It is a fourday spiritual cleansing based on centuries of interpretation of the traditions of Prophet Muhammad.

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