CAIRO – In an effort to prevent the spread of swine flu, Arab governments have announced plans to ban children, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses from attending the hajj – the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that is a pillar of the faith.
The announcement was made Wednesday at a Cairo summit, at which Egypt hosted health ministers from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Yemen, as well as representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Speaking to reporters, WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean said that once Saudi Arabia ratified the rules, they would be applied to visa procedures.
“The Saudi government will make [these conditions] a requirement ... [and then] no one will get their visa unless these requirements are fulfilled,” said Hussein Gezairi, regional director for the World Health Organization in the Eastern Mediterranean.
A ban was also enacted during a 1946 cholera outbreak in Egypt, says Sheikh Fawzy El Zefzaf, head of the Religious Dialogue Committee at Al Azhar Mosque, the most important seat of Sunni learning. But it was far less nuanced: all Egyptians were barred from going on hajj to protect other pilgrims from infection.
Saudi Arabia controls pilgrimage quotas through visa process
Saudi Arabia assigns each country a certain number of visas for pilgrims going on hajj each year. Outside Wednesday’s meeting, Saudi Health Minister Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Rabeeah said that each country would retain the same number of allotted spots, but would be responsible for making sure none of those went to applicants who should be barred.
“We did not change the percentage of any country, we changed certain rules,” he told reporters.
Restrictions also apply to umrah, or “the lesser pilgrimage,” which can be done at any time of year but which is popular during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins in August.
This year, the hajj is expected to draw 3 million people from more than 160 countries to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina during the month of November.
The debate over whether Muslims, who consider it a religious duty to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes, should cancel hajj plans due to health concerns had been building in the Arab world for weeks.
Earlier this month, Egypt’s leading religious figure asked the country’s clerics to weigh a fatwa on whether delaying hajj would be appropriate, and on Sunday a leading Shiite in Lebanon told his followers those with “serious concerns” could cancel their pilgrimage plans.
Sharpened focus in Egypt
This weekend, the debate took on new urgency in Egypt when a young woman diagnosed with the disease died just days after completing umrah in Saudi Arabia. Egypt, which is the only eastern Mediterranean country to lose a citizen to the disease, has since decided to put all returning pilgrims into quarantine.
Swine flu has been a particular concern in Egypt, a poor country with little public health infrastructure. Many here lauded the governments’ decision for its relative subtlety.
“The government is taking good precautions and showing some progress in terms of public health and globalization,” says Rashwan. “In the past when there were outbreaks, a decision like this would not be considered, but now we have more progressive tools to work with.”