Saudi empties Islam's holiest site for 'sterilisation'
Saudi Arabia on Thursday emptied Islam's holiest site for sterilisation over fears of the new coronavirus, an unprecedented shutdown state media said will last while the year-round umrah pilgrimage is suspended.
The kingdom halted the pilgrimage for its own citizens and residents on Wednesday, on top of restrictions announced last week on foreign pilgrims to stop the disease from spreading.
State television relayed images of an empty white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba - a large black cube structure inside Mecca's Grand Mosque - which is usually packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims.
As a "precautionary measure", the area will remain closed as long as the umrah suspension lasts, but prayers will be allowed inside the mosque, state-run Saudi Press Agency cited a mosque official as saying.
Additionally, the Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque in the city of Medina will be closed an hour after the evening "Isha" prayer and will reopen an hour before the dawn "Fajr" prayer to allow cleaning and sterilisation, the official added.
The hajj 2019: Pilgrims in their millions
Back before the pandemic, millions of devout Muslims conducted the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 2019. The organisers are expecting similar numbers this year. By Janina Semenova
Religious joy: an experience that must be captured and recorded. For many Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is the crowning moment of their faith. It is the religious duty of every Muslim to carry out the hajj – a journey that lasts several days – at least once in their lives, providing the individual is in good health and can afford to do it. Saudi Arabia is responsible for organising the pilgrimage
Anti-clockwise: the final destination on the pilgrimage is the holy city of Mecca. All worshippers visit the Grand Mosque in the Saudi Arabian city. In the inner courtyard of the mosque is the Kaaba, the "House of God", in the form of a black cube. The pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times, always in an anti-clockwise direction
Buried under rubble: around two million people travel to Mecca every year. The pilgrimage has been frequently overshadowed by misfortune – for example, on 15 September 2015. Just as the hajj was about to begin, a storm caused a crane to collapse onto the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing more than 100 people
Trampled to death: the next tragedy occurred nearly two weeks later, on 24 September 2015. Thousands of pilgrims were trampled to death in a mass panic in the town of Mina near Mecca. This is where pilgrims are supposed to conduct the ritual stoning of the devil
Travel ban for Muslims from Iran: it is thought that some 469 Iranians were among the dead. Following the incident, Iranians demonstrated outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. The Iranian government accused Saudi Arabia of negligence. This further exacerbated the already tense relationship between the two nations. Iran has banned its citizens from making the hajj this year
High-tech support: in response to the fatal accidents, Saudi Arabia has tightened security procedures. These include the introduction of electronic wristbands to identify each individual worshipper in the crowd. The wristbands will store personal data including health details and location, as well as inform pilgrims about prayer times
Praying on the mountain: one of the most important stations on the pilgrimage is the walk on Mount Arafat. It is here that the faithful supplicate to Allah to forgive their sins. According to Islamic tradition, this is where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon. Another high point of the hajj is the Feast of the Sacrifice or Eid, celebrated by Muslims all over the world, regardless of whether they are taking part in the pilgrimage
A group of cleaners were seen scrubbing and mopping the tiles around the Kaaba, a structure draped in gold-embroidered gold cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.
A Saudi official told journalists the decision to close the area was "unprecedented".
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia suspended the umrah for its own citizens and residents over fears of the coronavirus spreading to Islam's holiest cities. The move came after authorities last week suspended visas for the umrah and barred citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council from entering Mecca and Medina.
Saudi Arabia on Thursday declared three new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of reported infections to five.
The umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe annually. The decision to suspend the umrah mirrors a precautionary approach across the Gulf to cancel mass gatherings from concerts to sporting events.
It comes ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramadan starting in late April, which is a favoured period for pilgrimage.
It is unclear how the coronavirus will affect the hajj, due to start in late July. Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world in 2019 to take part in the hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam as Muslim obligations are known.
The event is a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites, making attendees vulnerable to contagion. Already reeling from slumping oil prices, the kingdom risks losing billions of dollars annually from religious tourism as it tightens access to the sites. (AFP)