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The Hajj: Thinner crowds and lots of rain

  • Huge downpours flood tents in Mina
  • Ministry says there are 40 percent fewer Saudi pilgrims this year
  • With fewer visitors, merchants report less business
  • No incidents reported among pilgrims

Mecca, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- The Hajj, an obligatory pilgrimage for Muslims, began this year on Wednesday with two twists: thinner crowds and heavy rain.

A rare rainstorm inundated pilgrims in the city of Mina, flooding tents and making conditions miserable for the 2.5 million pilgrims performing the ancient rituals, according to Isha Sesay, CNN's correspondent there.

The tents, where pilgrims plan to spend the night in prayer and contemplation, were leaking and flooding, giving rise to fears of disease, Sesay reported.

She said, however, that the several hours of rain was not likely to stop any of the pilgrims from performing the rituals.

"They've saved for years to get here," Sesay reported. "This is a blessing. They're not going to let rain get in the way."

iReporter witnesses heavy rain near his home

She said no incidents had been reported among the dimished number of pilgrims.

Video: Hajj rain
Video: Guide to the Hajj pilgrimage
Video: Security forces on alert
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  • Islam
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Officials said the swine flu could be keeping pilgrims from the fifth pillar of Islam, which requires devotees to journey to the holy city of Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

Saudi's Hajj Ministry said Wednesday that 40 percent fewer Saudi pilgrims are participating in the ancient rituals this year, largely due to fears of disease, though a greater number of international visitors had come.

"Concerns about the spread of H1N1 may have affected the turnout but we are confident of all measures in place to increase monitoring of cases and awareness about how one can protect himself or herself," said Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabbeeah, the Saudi health minister.

A teenager and three elderly people have died of the H1N1 flu virus at the Hajj.

The victims were a 17-year-old Nigerian female and a Sudanese man, an Indian man and a Moroccan woman who each were 75 years old.

Many of the 2 million pilgrims have been arriving days and weeks ahead of the Hajj, which coincides with flu season. The rituals of the five-day event began Wednesday.

But with fewer visitors, businesses are feeling the pinch this year.

Shopkeeper Fahmi al-Rashidi said he has slashed prices of the gold he sells in Mecca's Al-Ghaza market.

"Business is lower than last year," he said. "I think swine flu fears combined with high gold prices are turning people away from spending."

Another merchant, Fahd al-Qraishi, said a normal 20 percent profit has dropped to 5 percent.

Hajj observed in Second Life

The Hajj Ministry reported, however, a 17 percent increase in the number of international pilgrims, some of whom are enjoying discounted rates at hotels including the Hilton Makkah.

Then there was the real damper.

Mecca resident Khaled Nemary said he had not seen so much rain in a quarter-century.

And the forecast? Showers through Friday.

CNN's Amir Ahmed and Daniela Deane contributed to this report.