Palestinians close Al-Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Rock over coronavirus fears
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Palestinians close Al-Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Rock over coronavirus fears

Prayers to take place outdoors in compound, Muslim officials say; at nearby Western Wall, indoor gatherings restricted to 10 people

A young man wearing a protective mask as a measure of protection against the coronavirus COVID-19, walks in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine inside the al-Aqsa compound on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 13, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)
A young man wearing a protective mask as a measure of protection against the coronavirus COVID-19, walks in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine inside the al-Aqsa compound on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 13, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)

Muslim authorities announced Sunday that the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam, would be closed indefinitely due to concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, with prayers continuing to be held on the sprawling esplanade outside.

Al-Aqsa is the latest in a series of religious sites where access has been halted or strictly limited. Saudi Arabia has halted the umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and could be forced to limit or cancel the much larger hajj later this year. On Sunday, it announced the temporary closure of all mosques and called off Friday prayers.

Sheikh Omar Kiswani, the director of Al-Aqsa, said Sunday that the closure of the mosque and other buildings on the compound, including the iconic golden Dome of the Rock, would continue indefinitely.

Similar measures have been taken at the nearby Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, where outdoor prayers continue but only 10 people at a time are permitted in enclosed areas, in keeping with measures taken by the Israeli government.

Palestinian Muslims pray in smaller numbers than usual during the weekly Friday noon prayer outside the Dome of the Rock mosque at the Al-Aqsa mosques compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 6, 2020, due to fears of the spread of the coronavirus (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Israel imposed sweeping travel and quarantine measures more than a week ago but has seen its number of confirmed cases double in recent days, to around 200. On Saturday, the government said restaurants, malls, movies, gyms and daycare centers would close. It also limited gatherings to 10 people, including for religious worship, though those rules apparently did not extend to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, which is under Jordanian custodianship and where non-Muslim prayer is banned.

The Palestinian Authority has reported 38 coronavirus cases in the West Bank, nearly all connected to an outbreak in the town of Bethlehem. Israel and the Palestinians have largely sealed the town off.

Palestinian officials said PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 85 years old and has age-related health issues, is no longer receiving any guests as a precaution, and is only meeting with a couple of very close aides. Most of his staff have been asked to work from home.

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