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Shadow over Mecca

Peter Hille/ cbOctober 2, 2014

The annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has begun. But this year, there will be fewer Muslims from West Africa. They have been refused entry to Saudi Arabia because of the Ebola virus devastating their home.

Two Muslim men wearing surgical masks. (Photo: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Elias Ismail is walking the crowded streets of Mecca wearing a face mask. The young man traveled to Saudi Arabia from Malaysia for the start of the hajj pilgrimage. But he can't fully enjoy the religious experience.

"I wear this mask for my health," he told the AP news agency. "Of course, we've heard of the Ebola from African countries. I'm afraid of Ebola."

Up to 3 million people are making the pilgrimage to Mecca this year to visit sites that are sacred to Muslims. Millions of people will be in close contact in a small area, which increases the risk for Ebola or other illnesses to spread quickly.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned against the contagious Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, which attacks the respiratory system and can end fatally for those infected.

But Ebola is the center of attention, the illness that has killed more than 3,000 people in West Africa and is transferred via bodily fluids.

Protection, God willing

So far, there have been no cases of Ebola in Saudi Arabia, according to Dr. Manal Mansour, who is responsible for containing infectious diseases at the Al-Nur-Hospital in Mecca. The hospital is where a quarantine ward for possible Ebola patients has been set up.

"The Ministry of Health is working hard in trying to put all the precautions to prevent the spread of Ebola during the hajj," the doctor said. "There is a lot of cooperation between the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization."

A host of Muslim pilgrims placing stones on a wall. (Photo: EPA/YAHYA ARHAB)
It's easy for a disease to spread among the masses of people who undertake the pilgrimage to MeccaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Saudi authorities have also decided not to let pilgrims from Ebola areas enter the country. They refused visa applications from 7,000 would-be pilgrims from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. That move was definitely not well received by people who often saved money all their lives to travel to Mecca once. But all protest was in vain. Saudi Arabia even rejected a proposition by Sierra Leone's government to test every single pilgrim for Ebola.

Mamadou Diallo wanted to take his first pilgrimage to Mecca this year. But the 53-year-old Guinean won't be able to fulfill this dream. "We have even tried to arrange entry via Saudi Arabia's neighboring countries," Diallo told DW. "But that doesn't work with a Guinean passport either. It's really hard on us."

Hoping for next year

The National Council of Muslims in Liberia on the other hand welcomed the decision as "the will of the Prophet Muhammad." They see it as a way to protect Muslims from all over the world from the illness. Only about 10 percent of Liberia's population is Muslim, but in Sierra Leone and Guinea, the majority of the population is Muslim.

"We hope that this illness is completely eradicated in our countries by next year," Diallo said. "Then we'll prepare for the pilgrimage next year. But if this goes on for another year, it would be really sad for us."

Some pilgrims with better luck came from Nigeria, the West African nation which has so far been able to control the Ebola epidemic. 76,000 Nigerian pilgrims were able to travel to Mecca back in September. Each of them had to go through three health checks in a specially furnished part of Lagos Airport. Only then were they allowed to enter the planes to Saudi Arabia.