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Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia suspends prayers in holy mosques of Mecca and Medina

The kingdom, which has 274 confirmed cases, has banned entry to sites to stem spread of Covid-19
Saudi Arabia, which hosts two of Islam's holiest sites, usually welcomes millions of worshippers every year (AFP)

Saudi authorities have stopped worshippers from entering and praying at the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

In a statement issued late on Thursday, Hani bin Hosni Haider, a spokesman for the General Presidency of Mecca's Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, said worshippers would no longer be allowed to perform their five daily prayers in the overflow area just outside the walls of the two holy mosques.

Authorities had already instituted a ban on worshippers praying near the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure the world's 1.8 billion Muslims pray towards.

"Security and health agencies decided to suspend the presence of people and prayers in the outer courtyards of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina starting from 20 March, as part of precautionary and preventative measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus," Haider said.

Shortly after the announcement, photos were posted online showing Saudi police creating a perimeter outside the Prophet's Mosque in Medina with workers closing doors leading to the complex.

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In recent weeks, Saudi authorities have introduced a series of measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, known officially as Covid-19.

A ban was introduced earlier this month on the Umrah pilgrimage, which seven million Muslims perform every year. 

Prior to visiting Saudi Arabia, pilgrims are required to provide certificates for vaccinations in their visa applications.

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The kingdom has also suspended international flights, closed schools and universities and temporary closed off the eastern province of Qatif, which has most of the country's cases.

Earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman spoke publicly about the pandemic for the first time, saying the kingdom would take measures to curb its spread.

"We are living through a difficult period in the history of the world, but we are fully aware that it will pass despite its cruelty, bitterness and difficulty," the 84-year-old monarch said in a five-minute televised address.

Saudi Arabia has reported 274 cases of the coronavirus as of Thursday, according to the health ministry.

The outbreak was labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organisation last Wednesday as the worldwide death toll from the virus continues to grow. Total cases have surpassed 235,000 across 160 countries. 

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