Saudi 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.

Cleaners wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, as they swipe the floor at the Kaaba in the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia March 3, 2020.
Cleaners wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, as they swipe the floor at the Kaaba in the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia March 3, 2020. (Reuters)

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 cancelled Friday prayers in major cities.

The Saudi move expands a ban last week on foreigners visiting Mecca and Medina, home to the holiest sites in Islam.

Even after that announcement on Feb. 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.

Temporary ban

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.

"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. 

There are now over 3,140 cases of the virus across the Mideast. Of those outside Iran in the region, most link back to the Islamic Republic.

Top leaders in Iran's civilian government and Shia 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 epicentre of the outbreak. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 90,000 people and caused over 3,100 deaths.

Experts worry that Iran may be underreporting its cases.

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

Eshaq Jahangiri, Iran's senior vice president, 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 travelled 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" programmes 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."

Source: AP