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 annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage.
Earlier this year, Saudi authorities banned people 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 more than 7,100 people in West Africa and killed more than 3,300, according to the World Health Organization.
The hajj sees massive crowds every year from around the world gather around the cube-shaped 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 discovered 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 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 told The Associated Press.