Egyptian pilgrims protest swine flu travel rules

CAIRO: Hundreds of Egyptians staged a sit-in Sunday at Cairo airport after they were barred from traveling to Mecca to perform a pilgrimage due to new restrictions to prevent the spread of swine flu, an airport security official said.

Airport authorities called in extra security to disperse the 300 protesters, who sat on the terminal floor and refused to leave, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The restrictions took effect Sunday, prompting security to remove a number of passengers from flights after they had boarded. Under the restrictions, only travelers between the ages of 25 and 65 may journey to Mecca because that age group is less susceptible to the flu.

The travelers barred Sunday had intended to perform the umra, a voluntary pilgrimage to Mecca that can be completed at any time of the year. It is separate from the larger annual pilgrimage to the holy city that is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their lives.

The restrictions could affect a large number of people over the age of 65, because many Muslims save up their whole lives to make the trip and others go to cleanse their souls before dying.

Arab health ministers decided last month to exclude those most vulnerable to swine flu to reduce the possibility the disease will spread among the massive crowds during the pilgrimage, or hajj.

More than half a million Egyptians perform the hajj every year.

Those prevented from traveling will be reimbursed for the airfare, said Egypt’s civil aviation minister, Ahmad Shafiq. — AP

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