Saudi Arabia halts travel to Islam’s holiest site over virus

(FILE) - General view of Prophet Mohammed Mosque at al-Madina al-Monawara city, some 425km north of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. According to a statement on 26 February, Saudi Arabia has suspended religious tourism temporarily for the purposes of Umrah (a minor Islamic pilgrimage that can be done at any time of the year), as well as visiting the mosque of Prophet Muhammad, al-Masjid an Nabawi, in efforts to prevent the Covid-19 coronavirus in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia is also suspending the entry of non-Saudi citizens coming from affected countries. EPA-EFE/JAMAL NASRALLAH

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Saudi Arabia on Thursday halted travel to the holiest sites in Islam over fears about a new viral epidemic just months ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage, a move coming as the Mideast has over 220 confirmed cases of the illness.

The extraordinary decision by Saudi Arabia stops foreigners from reaching the holy city of Mecca and the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims pray toward five times a day. It also said travel was suspended to Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina.

The decision showed the worry about the outbreak potentially spreading into Saudi Arabia, whose oil-rich monarchy stakes its legitimacy on protecting Islam’s holy sites. The epicenter in the Mideast’s most-affected country, Iran, appears to be in the holy Shiite city of Qom, where a shrine there sees the faithful reach out to kiss and touch it in reverence.

The virus that causes the illness named COVID-19 has infected more than 80,000 people globally, mainly in China. The hardest-hit nation in the Mideast is Iran, where Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 19 people have died among 139 confirmed cases.

Experts are concerned Iran may be underreporting cases and deaths, given the illness’s rapid spread from Iran across the Persian Gulf. For example, Iran still has not confirmed any cases in Mashhad, even though a number of cases reported in Kuwait are linked to the Iranian city.

Read more via AP

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