RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia expanded a rare freeze on pilgrimages to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina by foreigners to also include Saudi citizens and residents due to concerns about the new coronavirus, state news agency SPA reported.
Riyadh reported its first case of the flu-like disease on Monday and a second incidence on Wednesday, both from nationals who had not disclosed recent visits to Iran, which has reported the most deaths outside China where the virus originated.
“Based on the recommendations of the committee appointed to monitor coronavirus ... it has been decided to suspend umrah for citizens and residents in the kingdom,” SPA said, citing an official source in the Saudi interior ministry.
Umrah refers to pilgrimage rites carried out in the holy cities throughout the year, and is separate from the annual week-long haj, which typically draws 2 million Muslims from around the world. Haj starts this year in late July.
The latest decision will be reviewed regularly and reversed when the situation changes, SPA added.
Dr. Sami Angawi, a Saudi expert on Mecca and Medina as well as the haj, said the latest restrictions were the most severe in living memory but not unprecedented in 1,400 years of Islamic history.
He called the move “a wise and courageous decision... to protect the heart of the Muslim world.”
Saudi nationals and residents can still visit Mecca and Medina and pray there, provided they do not go for the purpose of umrah, deputy haj minister Abdulfattah Mashat told Al Arabiya TV on Wednesday.
“Mecca is still open to visitors from across the kingdom. The decision suspends only umrah activities,” he said.
Saudi Arabia last week halted umrah visas for foreigners and banned Gulf citizens from visiting the two cities because of the virus.
It also barred tourists from at least 25 countries where the virus has been found, and on Tuesday it limited arrivals of travellers from Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia and is the backbone of plans to develop tourism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic reform agenda, which aims to end the oil dependence of the world’s top crude exporter.
Visits by pilgrims accelerate during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, beginning this year in late April.
Reporting by Alaa Swilam and Marwa Rashad; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nafisa Eltahir; Editing by Peter Graff, Nick Macfie and Lisa Shumaker