Turkish President Abdullah Gul departed for Saudi Arabia today to perform the Hajj, becoming the first president of Turkey ever to have performed the duty while still in office Hurriyetdailynews reported.
Gul will join some 2 million pilgrims who poured out of the Muslim holy city of Mecca Oct. 13 to begin the annual Hajj.
Gul, who will wear a djellaba (ritual robe), is expected to perform the ritual of sacrificing an animal during the trip. As he worked as an economist at the headquarters of the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah from 1983 to 1991, when he was elected as a member of Parliament, it had been assumed that he had performed Hajj in the past.
Elected as president in August 2007, Gul's term in office will end in August 2014. His plane took off early in the morning from Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. He is also scheduled to meet senior Saudi officials during his visit, which will end on Oct. 17.
The number of pligrims performing the Hajj has decreased this year on fears of the deadly MERS virus, Agence France-Presse has reported.
Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia told reporters late Saturday that authorities had so far detected no cases among the pilgrims of the virus which has killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia.
In Mina, the pilgrims will pray and rest before moving on to Mount Arafat on Monday for the climax of the pilgrimage rituals.
Saudi Arabia has deployed more than 100,000 troops to ensure the safety of the pilgrims and has warned it will tolerate no demonstrations or disturbances.
The fact that the kingdom accounts for the overwhelming majority of MERS cases reported around the world has raised concerns pilgrims could be infected and return to their homelands carrying the virus.
But the authorities have said they are optimistic the hajj will pass without incident, given Muslims also go on lesser pilgrimages at other times of the year and there has been no problem.
Experts are struggling to understand the MERS coronavirus, for which there is still no vaccine.
It is considered a deadlier but less transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died, and sowed economic chaos.
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