Middle East

Saudi Arabia plays down Ebola concern for Hajj pilgrimage

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Media captionSome in the crowd wore face masks - a possible precaution over Ebola fears

Two million Muslims have begun the annual Hajj pilgrimage, a five-day ritual central to Islam.

This year there have been concerns pilgrims may spread the contagious diseases Ebola and MERS.

Saudi Arabia, where the Hajj takes place, played down fears on Ebola, having banned pilgrims from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

Their decision has excluded 7,400 Muslims, though it is estimated that 1.4m of the pilgrims are international.

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Media captionSome of the numbers involved in 2015's Hajj

Saudi Arabia has claimed this year's Hajj is Ebola free as pilgrims flooded into Mina, 5km (three miles) from the holy city of Mecca, for the start of the pilgrimage.

As well as refusing visas to those from the three countries worst hit by Ebola, Saudi authorities asked all visitors to fill out medical screening cards and detail their travels over the past three weeks.

But Ebola is not the only disease concerning the Saudi government.

MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, hit Saudi Arabia badly in the spring of this year.

Since 2012, there have been more than 750 cases of MERS in the country. Of this total 319 people died, some of whom were health workers.

The meaning of Hajj

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Image caption Pilgrims walk around the Kaaba in Mecca, the building is the most sacred place in Islam and the direction of prayer for Muslims
  • Hajj is an annual five-day pilgrimage which all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lives, if they can afford it
  • It is the fifth and final pillar of Islam and is supposed to cleanse Muslims of sin and bring them closer to each other and God
  • The pilgrims, or Hajjis, wear simple white garments called "ihram" which give them all equal status
  • Those going on the hajj are required to abstain from sex, not to argue, kill anything or hunt and to avoid shaving and cutting their nails
  • Pilgrims perform several rituals during the hajj including walking counter-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba in Mecca, drinking from the Zam Zam Well and performing a symbolic stoning of the devil.

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