RIYADH: Muslims entered the fasting and feasting month of Ramadan this week with swine flu and the economic downturn adding to the security fears that plague several Islamic countries in dampening the mood.
The threat from the A(H1N1) virus prompted a string of governments to bar their citizens from making the pilgrimage to the holy places in Saudi Arabia traditionally made by many Muslims during Ramadan, while financial worries forced many families to cut back on their holiday spending.
In the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, which normally do a brisk trade from pilgrims during Ramadan, businesses were braced for their worst holy month in years.
The price for package tours for Saudis from Riyadh to Mecca has been slashed by 25 percent, the English language Saudi Gazette reported.
In neighboring Medina, officials said they expected business to be down by 70 percent.
Saudi newspapers showed pictures of pilgrims wearing face masks to ward of the A(H1N1) virus, which has killed 16 people and infected more than 2,000 in the kingdom.
Shiite Iran was among the countries banning its citizens from making the pilgrimage. It cancelled all flights to the kingdom for the duration of Ramadan.
A string of religious authorities across the Arab world also urged the faithful to stay at home this year.
In the Saudi capital shoppers jammed supermarkets until late into the night on Friday to stock up their larders for the extensive meals served to family and friends after the daytime fast ends.
Satellite TV networks launched special programming of serial dramas, sitcoms, talk shows and films in a bid to grab market share in the peak viewing period of the year.
Arab News columnist Tariq Al-Maeena bemoaned the commercialism that has overshadowed Ramadan s spiritual roots.
It is a month of introspection, a month of mercy, patience and self-discipline, he wrote.
Instead, what has been evident are the heavily advertised television serials … bound to take the viewers away from their activities of faith and keep them up all night.
In other parts of the Arab world without the kingdom s massive oil wealth, financial fears meant families approached the holy month far more cautiously.
In Algeria, where past Ramadans have been marred by flurries of attacks by Islamist militants, families said they were now more worried about their pockets. Some 1.2 million disadvantaged families are scheduled to get state help this year to cope with the costs of the holiday.
Security is far from being our main concern, said Abdelalik, sitting with his wife at a seafront cafe in the resort town of Boumerdes, east of the capital Algiers, which is still regarded by the army as a high-risk zone.
I m mostly concerned about making it to the end of the month, he said.
In other parts of the world though, security remained a pressing concern. In Muslim-majority southern Thailand – scene of a five-year-old insurgency that has killed 3,700 people – rebels killed three security volunteers and three civilians on the opening day of the fast.
Iraq too remained on tenterhooks after two deadly bombings in the heart of Baghdad the week before Ramadan ratcheted up tensions between the Shia majority which leads the government and the disenchanted Sunni Arab former elite.
But in a break with the communal rivalries of previous years since the US-led invasion of 2003, Sunnis and Shias marked the start of the Ramadan fast on the same day this year.
In a new bid to improve US relations with the Islamic world marred by the war in Iraq, President Barack Obama sent a Ramadan message to Muslims promising concrete actions and a new beginning.
I know this to be a festive time, he added, alluding to his father s Muslim background.
During Ramadan, Muslims are required to abstain from food, drink and sex from dawn until dusk as life slips into a lower gear during the day.
The lower latitudes of the Islamic heartland mean that daytime hours are relatively short but for Muslim communities in more northerly latitudes like Europe the fast can last as long as 16 hours a day.
In Egypt, the government even ordered summer time to end a month early in a bid to bring forward the hour of the iftar. But for Europe s largest Muslim community in France, the fast in the Paris region this year will run from 5:15 am to 9:00 pm.