Saudi Arabia reopened the two large mosques – the holiest religious sites in Islam – in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina after they were closed for sterilization to stop the spread of the new coronavirus , Al-Ekhbariya public television reported on Friday.

The sites have been closed to foreign pilgrims and traditional tourists from some 25 countries to stop the spread of the virus. He also said that citizens and residents of Gulf Cooperation Council countries wishing to enter must wait 14 days after returning from outside the region.

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Saudi Arabia has reported five cases of coronavirus.

The Al-Ekhbariya report did not make it clear whether pilgrims would be allowed to return to the sites.

On Wednesday, the kingdom interrupted the pilgrimage for its own citizens and residents, in addition to the restrictions announced last week to foreign pilgrims to prevent the spread of the disease.

State television broadcast footage of an empty, white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba, which is usually filled with tens of thousands of pilgrims –
an unprecedented ruling by state media has said it will last while the year-long Umrah pilgrimage is suspended.

As a precaution, the area will remain closed for as long as the Umrah is suspended, but prayers will be allowed inside the mosque, the state-run Saudi news agency said, citing an official from the mosque.

In addition, the Great Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in the city of Medina will be closed one hour after the evening prayer “Isha” and will reopen one hour before dawn “Fajr” to allow cleaning and sterilization, added the responsible.

A group of cleaners was seen rubbing and mopping the tiles around the Kaaba, a structure draped in golden cloth embroidered with gold towards which Muslims around the world pray.

A Saudi official told AFP that the decision to close the area was “unprecedented”.

Umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of the year, attracts millions of Muslims from around the world each year.

The decision to suspend Umrah reflects a precautionary approach across the Gulf to cancel mass gatherings from concerts to sporting events.

It precedes the holy fasting month of Ramadan which begins at the end of April, which is a privileged period for the pilgrimage.

It is not known how the coronavirus will affect Hajj, which is expected to start in late July.

About 2.5 million worshipers from around the world traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2019 to participate in Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, because Muslim obligations are known.

The event is a huge logistical challenge for the Saudi authorities, with a colossal crowd crowding into relatively small holy places, making participants vulnerable to contagion.
Already reeling from the fall in oil prices, the kingdom risks losing billions of dollars in religious tourism every year by tightening access to the sites.

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