Around 2 million Muslims have gathered in the Mina Valley to begin preparations for the annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage, a centuries-old tradition that this year is restrained, in part, by concerns over a respiratory virus centered in the area.
Saudi authorities say that so far, there's been no reported outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. The virus, which is related to SARS, has stricken about 100 people and killed 60, the majority of whom were in Saudi Arabia. Some pilgrims are wearing masks as a precaution, and altogether they number about one million fewer than last year.
To further reduce the risk of an outbreak, authorities cut the quota for international pilgrims by about 20 percent. According to Al Jazeera, they've boosted measures to keep out unregistered pilgrims, claiming to have turned away more than 31,000 and to have arrested 12,600 more.
The figure for domestic pilgrims, meanwhile, is believed to have been halved. Construction projects aimed at expanding the capacity of the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest place of worship, have also informed the thinned ranks.