Coronavirus: Courtyard at Mecca's Great Mosque closed for disinfecting

Mecca’s Great Mosque is DESERTED due to coronavirus: Courtyard is closed for disinfecting as Saudi Arabia battles the virus

  • Saudi Arabia has banned its citizens from making the pilgrimage to Mecca, having already banned foreigners in attempt to control coronavirus 
  • Area around the stone Kaaba was closed Thursday for disinfection in a rare sight 
  • Iran, at the centre of the outbreak in the Middle East, also barred Friday prayers  
  • Palestinian officials closed Church of the Nativity indefinitely, just before Easter

The central courtyard of the Great Mosque of Mecca was completely closed on Thursday as workers disinfected it in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

Photos and videos showed the area around the cuboid Kaaba – the holiest site in Islam – completely deserted except for cleaners in near-unprecedented scenes.

It comes after Saudi Arabia banned its citizens from making pilgrimages to the site, having already banned foreigners from coming amid fears it was spreading the virus.

The courtyard of the mosque is at it busiest during the Hajj pilgrimage – which this year falls during July and August – but remains busy throughout the year for Umrah pilgrimages, meaning it is almost never empty.

The courtyard around the cuboid Kaaba at Mecca’s Great Mosque was deserted except for workers disinfecting it after it was closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus

Thousands of worshippers were still making their way around the Kaaba – the holiest site in Islam – earlier in the week, before Saudi Arabia banned its citizens from going

The mosque is busiest during the Hajj pilgrimage, which this year falls between July and August, but is open all year round for Umrah pilgrimages meaning it is almost never empty

Saudi Arabia has so far confirmed five cases of coronavirus, all of them in citizens who had recently returned from Iran – which it at the centre of the outbreak in the  Middle East – or their relatives.

Having initially dismissed the outbreak as ‘no big deal’, Iran’s mullahs seemed to have woken up to the scale of the crisis as Friday prayers were cancelled in major cities to prevent the disease spreading.

It comes after troops were placed on alert to help deal with the crisis, travel between major cities was restricted, holy sites were disinfected, and 54,000 prisoners who had tested negative were freed to stop it spreading in jails. 

The country has also urged people not to use paper money.

Palestinian officials also announced on Thursday that the Church of the Nativity in the biblical city of Bethlehem would close indefinitely after the first suspected cases of coroanvirus were reported on their territory.

The move comes just weeks before Easter, when thousands of pilgrims come to worship at the site – built on the reputed birthplace of Christ.  

Cleaners had closed part of the Great Mosque earlier in the week in order to disinfect it, but the site was completely shuttered Thursday 

Cleaners wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, as they swipe the floor at the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca

Cleaners wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the coronavirus which has so far infected five people in Saudi Arabia

The Church of the Nativity was closed after suspicions that four Palestinians had caught the virus, prompting a flurry of measures that included banning all tourists from the West Bank for an unspecified amount of time and shutting down other places of worship in Bethlehem for two weeks.  

Built on the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born, the church joins a list of prominent tourist and holy sites to shutter their doors in the wake of rising fears over the spread of the virus, which has infected tens of thousands and killed more than 3,000 globally.

‘We respect the instructions of the relevant authorities,’ said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to Catholic church officials in the Holy Land. ‘Safety comes first.’

The Kaaba is pictured during Hajj in 2019, when millions of Muslims circle it during the holy pilgrimage

Just before 4 p.m., a bearded clergyman walked outside and locked the church’s wooden door with a large key. Just a few foreign tourists milled about.

Artur Joba, a Polish tourist visiting with his girlfriend, said he had decided to cut his stay in Bethlehem short and would head to nearby Jerusalem on Friday.

‘I heard they found the coronavirus infection here and we decided to leave,’ he said. ‘We can’t stay here any more. I’m going back to my hotel now to look for a hotel elsewhere.’

Saif Saboh, a Palestinian tour guide, said a number of groups have canceled visits in recent days, fearing the virus.

He said he has stopped shaking hands or getting too close to tourists. When he gets home in the evening, he said he washes and keeps away from his children. 

‘I’m terrified,’ he said. ‘It is serious and any tourist could be infected.’

The virus has disrupted Muslim worship across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia banned pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca, while Iran has canceled Friday’s Islamic prayers in major cities.

The Church of the Nativity receives some 10,000 tourists a day, according to Palestinian officials. 

It is expected to welcome tens of thousands of visitors during the busy Easter season. If the measures remain in place, the fledgling Palestinian tourism industry could take a walloping. 

Tourists currently in the West Bank were instructed to leave once their bookings end.

Elias al-Arja, the head of the Bethlehem hotel owners union, angrily accused the government of caving in to panic. 

‘This will cause huge damage to the economy. We have 3,000 workers in the tourist sector and they will all go home. Who is going to feed their families?’ he said.

Anton Suleiman, the mayor of Bethlehem, acknowledged that ‘everything is closed because of the panic.’ 

But he said, ‘Even if this causes huge damage to the economy, public safety is the most important thing to us.’

Saudi Arabia has confirmed five cases of coronavirus, but appears to be learning lessons from neighbouring Iran were refusal to close religious sites led to thousands of infections

An aerial view showing the courtyard around the Kaaba completely deserted

In Iran, Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced his country’s new restrictions at a televised press conference. 

He added that schools and universities will remain closed through Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 20.

‘We will strictly control comings and goings,’ he said.

Ali Darvishpour, deputy governor of Alborz province, said that except for medical centers, all governmental offices, banks and institutions will be closed Saturday, the first day of Iran’s work week, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency. 

He also urged people to stay at home.

Iran and Italy have the world’s highest death tolls outside of China.

These mark the latest disruptions of life across the Mideast from the new virus, which has seen over 3,740 confirmed cases in the region.

Even as the Bethlehem church was closed, other major places of worship in the Holy Land remained open.

Israeli officials said there were no special precautions at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray. 

The nearby Al Aqsa mosque compound was expected to welcome 50,000 worshipers for Friday prayers. 

Coronavirus has officially infected 96,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,000, leaving the disease on the brink of becoming a pandemic

The Islamic Waqf, which administers the site, encouraged the faithful to ensure good personal hygiene.

Israel, which has 15 confirmed virus cases, has taken strict measures in a bid to stave off an outbreak, including banning the entry of visitors from some 10 countries. 

With many tourists to the West Bank flying in through Israel’s international airport, the Palestinians are likely also being affected.

The virus has started to shake Israel’s tourism industry as well. Israeli airline El Al, which has cancelled dozens of flights to countries with a virus outbreak, announced on Wednesday that it was laying off 1,000 employees because of the economic fallout from the virus.

Earlier Thursday, the United Arab Emirates warned its citizens and its foreign residents not to travel abroad amid the ongoing outbreak, a stark warning for a country home to two major long-haul airlines. 

Both airlines, Emirates and Etihad, have encouraged staff to take time off as international travel has dropped due to the virus.

The country’s Health and Community Protection Ministry warning comes as its capital, Abu Dhabi, sent 215 foreigners it evacuated from hard-hit Hubei in China to a quarantine set up in its Emirates Humanitarian City. 

Iraqi medical staff check passengers’ temperature, amid coronavirus outbreak, upon their arrival from Iran, which is at the centre of the Middle 

Iranian fire fighters spray rental bikes with disinfectant in the capital Tehran as authorities try to control the spread of coronavirus

They include citizens of Egypt, Sudan and Yemen.

Health officials warned that those traveling abroad could face quarantine themselves at the discretion of authorities. 

The UAE is home to some 9 million people, with only about 1 million estimated to be Emirati citizens.

Worship continued to be disrupted elsewhere, as Iraq canceled Friday prayers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, according to a statement Thursday. 

Millions of Iraqis look to the weekly sermon delivered by a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for guidance every Friday.

Karbala, and the nearby Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, attract millions of Shiite pilgrims, most of them from Iran, every year.

Two people who had tested positive for the coronavirus have died in Iraq, the Iraqi Health Ministry said. Iraq has 39 confirmed cases, almost all of them Iran-linked.  

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