Virus fears overshadows Friday prayers across Middle East

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Virus fears overshadows Friday prayers across Middle East

JERUSALEM: From Jerusalem to Makkah, Muslims across the Middle East held Friday prayers under the shadow of the new coronavirus, with some gatherings cancelled and others subdued because of the deadly outbreak.

The highly contagious disease is believed to be transmitted through close contact and authorities globally have moved to restrict large gatherings, including public prayers. In Makkah, Islam´s holiest site was uncrowded after reopening on Friday following disinfection. “The fact that it is empty is very scary,” an Egyptian worshipper who has lived in Mecca for more than 20 years told AFP.

“I had a very strange and difficult feeling as I was headed to the mosque. I felt deprived of the Kaaba,” he said. The area around the Kaaba, a large black cube structure inside Makkah’s Grand Mosque, was closed Thursday for sterilisation.

Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque normally attract hundreds of thousands of worshippers, while this week only tens of thousands attended. The mosque´s imam prayed for an end to the epidemic during his sermon, while praising Saudi Arabia´s decision to suspend the year-round umrah pilgrimage over fears of the new coronavirus.

“God, I seek refuge in you from the calamity and the epidemic,” said Sheikh Abdullah Awad Al-Juhani. In Iran, which has the most COVID-19 cases in the region, authorities have faced accusations of mismanaging the response to the outbreak. In total 4,747 cases have been reported in the country, with 124 deaths. Authorities cancelled weekly prayers in Tehran and provincial capitals. In Iraq, prayers were cancelled in the holy city of Karbala, home of the mausoleum of the grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). For the first time since 2003 no one delivered the sermon of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest authority for millions of Shiite Muslims.

In the city of Najaf, however, campaigning by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr forced authorities to re-open the Imam Ali mausoleum, which had been closed for disinfection. The first new coronavirus case in Iraq was identified in Najaf, which attracts millions of Iranian pilgrims annually.

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