TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – The coronavirus outbreak disrupted Islamic rites in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia on Friday banned its citizens and residents from making the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca for fear of spreading the new virus, while Iran canceled Friday prayers in major cities.
The decisions in Riyadh and Tehran affected Sunni and Shiite Muslims alike.RELATED
The Saudi measure extended the ban announced last week to foreigners visiting Mecca and Medina, where Islam’s holiest sites are located. That decision alone disrupted the travels of thousands of Muslims already on their way to the kingdom and potentially affects plans later this year for millions more before the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual haj pilgrimage.
Even after that announcement on February 27, people who were already in Saudi Arabia could still travel to the Great Mosque of Mecca, where pilgrims circle the cube-shaped Kaaba, to which Muslims around the world they should pray five times a day.
The crowds were much smaller than usual before Wednesday’s Interior Ministry statement, broadcast by the Saudi state news agency.
Millions of people attend the annual haj, which this year is slated for late July through early August, and many more Muslims visit the holy sites of the kingdom throughout the year. Those other pilgrimages are known as umrah, which attracted 7.5 million foreigners in 2019 alone.
It is unclear how the ban will be applied. The government described the suspension as “temporary,” but gave no clues as to when it will last. The ban also seemed to cover the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in nearby Medina.
For its part, Iran canceled Friday prayers in all its provincial capitals amid the spread of the new coronavirus, which has killed at least 92 people among 2,922 confirmed cases.
During a speech at a meeting of his government on Wednesday, the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, stated that the virus is already present in almost the entire country.
“This disease is very widespread,” he said according to a transcript. “It covers almost all of our provinces and it is, in a sense, a global disease that many countries around the world have become infected with, and we must work together to address this problem as quickly as possible.”
The capital Tehran and other major cities had already canceled prayers last week as a result of the outbreak. Although observant Muslims can pray at home, the most devout prefer to attend Friday prayers as a community. Friday is the main day of prayer in Islam, and traditionally it is an important event for the religious leaders of the Islamic Republic.
There are now more than 3,150 cases of the virus across the Middle East. Of the cases in the region outside Iran, the majority are linked to the Islamic Republic.
The virus has also infected senior officials in the civilian government and its Shiite theocracy. The top leaders of Iran’s civilian government and the Shiite theocracy have fallen ill with COVID-19. The virus has affected his government more than in any other country, even more than in China, the epicenter of the outbreak. Worldwide, there are more than 90,000 people with COVID-19, which has caused more than 3,100 deaths.
“The virus does not have wings to fly,” said Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour. “We are the ones who transfer it from one to the other.”
Iran announced earlier in the day that COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, left 92 dead among the 2,922 confirmed cases nationwide. This is the highest death toll in the world behind only China, where the outbreak was recorded last December.
He announced the new figures at a press conference in the capital. Iran is now outnumbering Italy, the focus of another major outbreak that has also worsened.
Experts fear Tehran is declaring fewer than real cases.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Associated Press journalists Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, Samy Magdy in Cairo and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.