Saudi Arabia seeks to curb flu and stop protest at haj

haj-maskMore than two million Muslims gather this week for the annual haj pilgrimage to Islam’s holy city of Mecca, where Saudi authorities hope to minimize spread of the H1N1 virus and prevent any political demonstration. (Photo: Saudi security official at a checkpoint between  Jeddah and Mecca, 21 Nov 2009/Caren Firouz)

The haj, one of the world’s biggest displays of mass religious devotion and a duty for Muslims who can perform it, has been marred in the past by fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protesters and deadly stampedes.

This year, the mainly Sunni Muslim kingdom is battling Shi’ite Yemeni rebels after they raided its territory, an issue that raises fears of possible protests by fellow Shi’ite Muslims during the rituals. Saudi Arabia bans public protests.

Riyadh is also trying to prevent a spread of the H1N1 virus as the crowded rituals provide an environment for transmission of the disease. At least four pilgrims have died of the virus since the beginning of the haj season.

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Pilgrims snub H1N1 flu and flock to Saudi Arabia

haj-flu (Photo: Palestinian pilgrim gets vaccinated in Gaza Strip, 6 Nov 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Standing in the middle of a long queue at Jeddah airport, Mahdi Sharif is one of millions of Muslims waiting to enter Saudi Arabia to start the annual haj pilgrimage despite a global outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

Little fazed by the spread of the virus, Sharif, who has been waiting for two years to be selected from a raffle of 5,000 Kurdish Iraqis to visit Mecca, wears a protection mask but never thought for a second of delaying his pilgrimage.

“This year I was chosen so I came, I could not say no. The happiness of being chosen is stronger than fear (of illness),” said Sharif in a muffled voice through his medical mask.

Flu fears force Mexican Catholics to attend virtual Mass

Esteban Israel in Mexico City writes:
Mexico’s 20 million Catholics had to resort to a televised Mass on Sunday after health authorities shut down churches nationwide to prevent the spread of a new flu virus that has seized headlines throughout the world.


The country’s main TV networks broadcast Mass live from the city’s largest cathedral, the Basilica de Guadalupe, showing priests wearing protective face masks alongside the church’s marble altar.

Mexico City’s archbishop, Cardinal Norberto Rivera, gave a sermon that echoed in the empty chamber dominated by giant cranes holding television lights and cameras. The 200,000 faithful who normally visit the Basilica on Sunday were replaced by a few dozen priests, nuns and reporters.