Saudi Arabia bars entry to pilgrims over coronavirus fears

Saudi Arabia bars entry to pilgrims over coronavirus fears
Saudi Arabia bars entry to pilgrims over coronavirus fears

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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - Saudi Arabia has suspended entry into the kingdom for visitors hoping to perform the Umrah pilgrimage in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the state news agency said.

Individuals hoping to perform the voluntary Umrah pilgrimage or visit the Prophet's mosque in Medina - Islam's second holiest site - will be temporarily barred from entry, the official Saudi Press Agency reported on Thursday.

Nearly 7.5 million people performed the Umrah pilgrimage last year. The optional rite can be undertaken at any point during the year, unlike the obligatory Hajj pilgrimage. Many pilgrims also go on to travel to the Prophet's mosque in Medina, one of the largest in the world.

Tourists from countries in which "the spread of the coronavirus poses a risk" will also be temporarily prohibited from entering Saudi Arabia, SPA added.

The kingdom has not specified to which countries this new rule applies.

Saudi Arabia has not yet had a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus, also known as Covid-19.

Neighbouring countries Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have however confirmed a number of cases.

Riyadh also looks to control travel from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

All GCC nationals, including Saudis, must now travel to and from the kingdom using their passports rather than national identity cards.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the region to have placed restrictions on religious rites in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Earlier this week, Lebanon banned its citizens from travelling to Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to perform pilgrimages.

On Wednesday, Iran said it would restrict access to several Shia Muslim holy sites throughout the country in a bid to contain the virus. Several of the shrines are common sites of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims.

The Islamic Republic has witnessed the deadliest outbreak of the coronavirus outside of China, where the virus originated. At least 19 people have died.

Authorities will also suspend Friday prayers in areas heavily affected by the virus. In Islam, men are required to pray communal prayers in a mosque at noon on Fridays.

Iraq also shuttered shrines in the Shia holy city of Najaf earlier this week.

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