Coronavirus may discourage pilgrimage for lesser hajj

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Alarmed by fast -spreading coronavirus, authorities in Saudi Arabia have banned foreigners from entering the kingdom to visit Islam’s holiest sites. This may discourage a lot of potential faithfuls hoping to visit the holy sites ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and as the annual hajj pilgrimage looms.

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The decision showed the growing worry across the Mideast about the virus as Iran confirmed that infected cases in the country spiked by over 100, to 254 now. Those with the virus in the Islamic Republic now include Iranian vice-president Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as the English-language spokeswoman “Mary” for the 1979 hostage-takers who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and sparked the 444-day diplomatic crisis, state media reported.

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A total of 26 people have died so far in Iran, the world’s highest death toll outside of China, where the outbreak began.

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Saudi Arabia’s barring of pilgrims from Mecca, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba that the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims pray toward five times a day, and also the holy city of Medina, appeared unprecedented in modern history. The kingdom’s Al Saud ruling family stakes their legitimacy in overseeing and protecting the sites. Authorities also suspended entry to travellers from nations affected by the new virus who hold tourist visas for the kingdom.

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It appeared Saudi officials worried about the risk of pilgrims spreading the virus as they had in Iran. The virus’ epicenter in the Islamic Republic is the holy Shiite city of Qom, where the faithful in reverence reach out to kiss and touch a famous shrine. That shrine and others have remained open, despite Iran’s civilian government calling for them to be closed.

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There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Saudi Arabia amid the outbreak.

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“Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus, and urges its citizens to exercise caution before travelling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement announcing the decision. “We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm.”

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News of the cancellation shocked the Muslim world, as many save their entire lives for a chance to see the Kaaba and walk along the path of the Prophet Muhammad and visit his tomb in Medina.

Hundreds of faithful deplaned in Pakistan as the ban came into effect, while Indonesia and Turkey had to turn away thousands of pilgrims set to fly. Authorities at Cairo’s international airport said the Saudi decision created “intense confusion” and “extreme anger” among thousands of passengers waiting for flights. Security officials needed to call in reinforcements to control the crowd as news of the ban broke, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t allowed to speak to reporters.

Disease outbreaks always have been a concern surrounding the hajj, which is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life, especially as pilgrims come from all over the world. The earliest recorded outbreak came in 632 as pilgrims fought off malaria. A cholera outbreak in 1821 killed an estimated 20,000 pilgrims. Another cholera outbreak in 1865 killed 15,000 pilgrims and then spread worldwide.

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More recently, Saudi Arabia faced the danger from another coronavirus, one that causes the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which jumped from ill camels to humans. The kingdom increased its public health measures during the hajj in 2012 and 2013 and urged the ill and the elderly not to take part in the pilgrimage.

Since September 2012, there have been nearly 2,500 cases of MERS reported, with 858 deaths attributed to the virus, according to the World Health Organization. However, the hajj itself saw no MERS outbreak. Saudi officials also instituted bans on pilgrims coming from countries affected by the Ebola virus in recent years as well.

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