A security official wearing a protective mask keeps an eye on cars at a checkpoint between Jeddah and Mecca before the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage November 21, 2009. Saudi Arabia said on Saturday four pilgrims had died of the new H1N1 flu virus three days before the massive Muslim haj is due to begin, al-Hayat newspaper said.
On November 25-29, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca of the Hajj begins in the Islamic world. The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and a moral obligation under the religion for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey must do so at least once in their lifetime.
The Hajj is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, with 2.5 million Muslims expected to make the trip this year.
With such a large movement of people, the Saudi government has issued warnings that all protesting during the Hajj is banned. The government has also stepped-up security, with more than 100,000 Saudi military deployed during the pilgrimage.
While the Saudi Arabian security forces assert that they do not expect any troubles, the interior ministry official in charge of security, Gen Mansour al-Turki, said that â€œWe will not allow any actions that might disturb any other pilgrims, or affect their safety.â€
In 1987, 402 people were killed when troops broke up a protest by Shia pilgrims. This year is also the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the Great Mosque in Mecca, home of the Kaaba and Islamâ€™s holiest site, by Sunni extremists.
The Kaaba is a cuboidal building in the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca that pre-dates Islam and is the holiest site in all of Islam. Muslim beliefs say that the original building on the site was built by Abraham. Thus, a mosque was built around the site and all Muslims, regardless of their location, must face the Kaaba during daily prayers, as well as take part in the Hajj if able.
Last month Iranâ€™s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned that it would take â€œappropriate measuresâ€ if its citizens faced restrictions. Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, called for the Shia to show that they were dealing with challenges to their unity.
Thus, the Saudi government has responded by both warning Iran not to abuse the Hajj for political purposes, and by the ban on protests.
Authorities are also hoping to prevent a repeat of the deadly stampedes, such as in 2006 when 364 people were killed, that have afflicted the Hajj. In response, the Saudi Government has recently finished the rebuilding of the Jamarat Bridge at Mina, the 950m (3,135ft) long, 80m (260ft) wide five-story pedestrian walkway, which cost $1.2bn, and that authorities hope will prevent overcrowding.