Saudi Arabia suspends Mecca pilgrimages over coronavirus fears

Saudi Arabia has halted the entry of Muslim pilgrims seeking to worship at the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as the kingdom attempts to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The Saudi government was “suspending entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visiting the Prophet’s Mosque temporarily”, the foreign ministry said on Thursday.

Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of year. Some 8m Muslims make the journey annually, with many doing so during the holy month of Ramadan that this year starts in late April.

The decision to stop pilgrims from visiting sites such as Medina’s Prophet’s Mosque is likely to divide opinions among religious scholars. While Saudi Arabia has in the past restricted pilgrims from some countries or regions due to diseases, such as during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, a worldwide ban appears to be unprecedented.

During last year’s swine flu outbreak, the Saudi Grand Mufti, the country’s most senior religious leader, expressed astonishment at calls to suspend the main Hajj pilgrimage. “Such fear is absolutely unjustified,” he said at the time, adding that it was permissible for pilgrims to wear protective face masks.

It is unclear if the Hajj, due to begin in July, will be affected by the latest restrictions.

The annual pilgrimage to Mecca is among the biggest single gatherings of humanity. A record number of more than 3m Muslim pilgrims made the journey in 2012 although numbers have declined since as the government issued fewer visas.

The Saudi government plans to increase the number of umrah pilgrims to 30m a year by 2030 as part of its tourism and economic diversification strategy. The foreign ministry said on Thursday it had suspended tourist visa entry from countries where the virus was spreading.

Saudi Arabia has not reported any confirmed cases of the coronavirus but seven Saudi citizens who travelled to Iran were among the cases reported in neighbouring Kuwait and Bahrain, where dozens of infections have been confirmed. The Saudi health ministry said it was co-ordinating with the authorities in those countries to treat the infected Saudis.

At least 139 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Iran, including the country’s deputy health minister. The first cases were traced to the Shia holy city of Qom.

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