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.
Upon arrival to the kingdom, pilgrims were asked to fill out "medical screening cards with data" and asked about their travels in the past 21 days, Mansour said.
There were other health concerns related to the hajj earlier this year. The kingdom had to improve its anti-infection measures after it was hit by an upswing in the number of people who had contracted a respiratory virus known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in the spring. There have been more than 750 cases of MERS in the kingdom since 2012, of which 319 people died, including several health workers.
Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, told the AP that the kingdom is also facing continuous threats from terrorists, but is prepared to ensure a safe hajj.
Saudi Arabia and four other Arab countries are taking part in U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida fighters in Iraq and Syria. Militants have vowed revenge.
Al-Qaida militants launched a series of deadly attacks in Saudi Arabia aimed at toppling the monarchy around a decade ago, though none were directed at Mecca. No major attacks have happened in recent years during the hajj.
"We have confronted al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia and we have defeated them," Al-Turki said. "But of course at the same time being we are still considering the threat, which is a continuous threat, and therefore we have actually enforced our security readiness at all the borders of Saudi Arabia."
Pilgrim Zaid Ajaz Amanea from the United Kingdom said he felt safe.
"I don't have to fear anything from anybody because I'm coming to God's house," he said.
The routes for hajj pilgrims and inside the Grand Mosque housing the Kaaba have thousands of security cameras, many of them hidden. The kingdom says there are some 70,000 security personnel guarding the hajj this year.Saudi's interior minister toured hajj sites to check on their readiness over the weekend.
The state-owned Saudi Gazette newspaper reported that the commander of hajj security forces has warned pilgrims against politicizing the pilgrimage. He said anyone who tries to propagate political views during the hajj, which brings Sunnis, Shiites and Muslims of all schools of thought to Mecca, will be severely punished.
The pilgrimage is a central pillar of Islam and all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform it once in their lives.
Saudi authorities said there are 1.4 million international visitors for the hajj this year. Some 600,000 pilgrims from the kingdom itself are also expected to take part.
On Thursday, pilgrims headed to Mina, about five kilometers (three miles) from Mecca, where they will spend the night in prayer and supplication.
Some pilgrims wore surgical blue masks to be extra careful.
"I'm afraid of the normal flu, I'm not scared of Ebola or anything like that," said Nayef Aboulein, a Saudi pilgrim.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
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