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Coronavirus outbreak halts pilgrimages to Mecca, Friday prayers in Iran

New restrictions by Riyadh and Tehran disrupt Islamic prayer; Middle East sees over 3,000 cases, most of them linked to Islamic Republic

Muslim pilgrims wear masks at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on February 28, 2020.  (Abdel Ghani Bashir/AFP)
Muslim pilgrims wear masks at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on February 28, 2020. (Abdel Ghani Bashir/AFP)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The coronavirus outbreak disrupted Islamic worship in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia on Wednesday banned its citizens and other residents of the kingdom from performing the pilgrimage in Mecca, while Iran canceled Friday prayers in major cities.

The decisions in Riyadh and Tehran affected both Sunni and Shiite Muslims alike.

The Saudi move expands a ban last week on foreigners visiting Mecca and Medina, home to the holiest sites in Islam. That decision alone disrupted travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affects plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Even after that announcement on February 27, people already in Saudi Arabia could still travel to Mecca’s Grand Mosque, where pilgrims circle the black, cube-shaped Kaaba that Muslims around the world pray toward five times a day. The crowds were far smaller crowds than usual before Wednesday’s statement from an unidentified Interior Ministry official that was carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

Muslim pilgrims wear masks at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on February 28, 2020. (Abdel Ghani BASHIR / AFP)

Millions attend the annual hajj, which this year is set for late July into early August, and many more visit the kingdom’s holy sites year round. Those other pilgrimages are referred to as the umrah, which drew 7.5 million foreigners in 2019 alone.

It remains unclear how the ban will be enforced. The government described the suspension as “temporary,” but gave no hint at when it will be lifted. The ban also appeared to encompass the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in nearby Medina.

The decision seeks to “limit the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic and prevent its access to the Two Holy Mosques, which are witnessing a permanent and intense flow of human crowds, which makes the issue of securing these crowds of utmost importance,” the Saudi government said.

In Iran, authorities halted Friday prayers in all provincial capitals amid the country’s growing coronavirus outbreak, which has killed at least 92 people amid 2,922 confirmed cases.

An Iranian man checks the temperature of a person entering an office building in Tehran on March 4, 2020. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

“This disease is a widespread one,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told his Cabinet, according to a transcript. “It encompasses almost all of our provinces and is, in a sense, a global disease that many countries in the world have become infected with, and we must work together to tackle this problem as quickly as possible.”

The announcement came a week after a similar order affected Tehran and several other major cities.

While observant Muslims can pray at home, the devout prefer to attend Friday prayers as a community. Iran’s Shiite theocracy also use the services to share ideological messages by clergymen selected by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

There are now over 3,150 cases of the virus across the Mideast. Of those outside Iran in the region, most link back to the Islamic Republic.

Iranians wearing protective masks walk under a prevention campaign poster for corona virus COVID-19, on March 4, 2020 in the capital Tehran. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Top leaders in Iran’s civilian government and Shiite theocracy have become infected with the virus. The country stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 90,000 people and caused over 3,100 deaths.

“The virus has no wings to fly,” Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said. “We are the ones who transfer it to each other.”

Experts worry that Iran may be underreporting its cases. Authorities in Iran said they arrested a man for posting a video online of bodies wrapped in white shrouds and zipped into black body bags at a cemetery in Qom on Monday.

The video purports to show over 30 corpses waiting to be washed per Islamic tradition, with a man’s voice alleging all were “corona-infected.”

Women wearing protective masks cross a street in the Iranian capital Tehran on March 2, 2020, following the COVID-19 illness outbreak (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Ali Ramezani, the executive manager of Qom cemetery, later told state television that authorities were awaiting the outcome of coronavirus tests on them before they were prepared for burial. Bodies testing positive are buried by staff wearing gloves and protective gear, and the graves are lined with lime.

“If the test results are negative, then there is no need to bury them based on the protocol for the new coronavirus and the family can receive the body of their loved ones and bury it where they want,” Ramezani said.

Eshaq Jahangiri, Iran’s senior vice president, meanwhile banned all overseas trips for officials to attend international events, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported. That did not affect Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh, who traveled with an entourage to Vienna for an OPEC meeting.

Rouhani, in his Cabinet meeting, acknowledged the toll the outbreak was taking on the public. He called on state television to offer “happier” programs to entertain those stuck at home.

“I urge all artists, scientists, psychologists and all who can bring smiles to people’s faces, come into the social media,” he said. “Today, words that make people tired are no longer advantageous.”

His request came as Iran’s judiciary ordered Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who just won the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear, to serve a one-year prison sentence over his movies.

In Israel, Chief Rabbi David Lau urged observant Jews to refrain from kissing the “mezuzot,” a small item encasing a prayer scroll that is attached to doorposts. Observant Jews typically touch the item and then kiss their hands when walking through a doorway.

Officials in Iraq’s semi-autonmous Kurdish region said they suspected a 70-year-old man living near the border with Iran died of the coronavirus. He would be Iraq’s first death from the virus, although authorities in Baghdad had not confirmed his infection.

A member of the Iraqi civil defense sprays disinfectant on and around the Great Mosque of Kufa, 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) northeast of the shrine city of Najaf in central Iraq on February 27, 2020. (Haidar HAMDANI / AFP)

The United Arab Emirates helped evacuate Sudanese students stuck in the hard-hit Chinese city of Wuhan. They’ll be held in the UAE in quarantine. And Egypt banned Qataris from entering the country following Doha starting a similar ban.

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