Tehran cancels Friday prayers and Riyadh suspends Umrah over coronavirus

Iran has cancelled Friday prayers across all the country’s cities this week amid the country’s growing coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia extended suspension of Umrah to include Saudi citizens and residents over coronavirus concerns

The move of the Iranian authorities to cancel the Friday prayers came after the Iranian National Committee on Combatting Coronavirus recently announced 586 new infected people and 15 deaths cases. According to official data, there are a total of 2,922 infected people and 92 death cases across Iran – the highest death toll in the world outside of China.

The Iranian health ministry said that 552 patients were recovered from the virus. It called on the citizens “to cancel the all joy and family gatherings, and funerals of joy.”

Tehran and other Iranian cities cancelled Friday prayers last week as a precaution for the virus spread.

Prisoners to serve sentences at home

In order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the country’s overcrowded prisons, the Iranian judiciary announced Tuesday that it has allowed 54,000 prisoners to serve part of their sentences at home.

Iranian judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaili, told reporters in the capital Tehran that since last week 54,000 prisoners were granted furlough; allowing them to leave prison in the knowledge they will be returned.

He added that the percentage of prisoners entering the country’s prisons has recently decreased by 35 per cent compared to previous periods.

Iranian authorities also announced that as many as 77 people have died of the disease while 2,300 people have been infected.

The country has, however, been suspected and accused of concealing the true number of those infected and dead, with some reporting over 10,000 infections and at least 210 deaths.

The coronavirus first appeared in China for the first time on 12 December in the city of Wuhan, but Beijing officially revealed it in mid-January. It has sounded global alarm with China reporting 2,592 deaths from the outbreak on Monday with over 77,000 confirmed cases.

Outside mainland China, the coronavirus has spread to more than 25 other countries including the US, the UK, Singapore, France, Russia, Spain and India. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak an international health emergency.

On Monday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that the Middle East airlines had incurred $100 million in losses following far-east flights’ cancellations over the virus spread.

Umrah suspended for citizens and residents

Saudi Arabia, which has already suspended pilgrimages to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina for foreigners due to coronavirus concerns, extended the ban on Wednesday to Saudi citizens and residents, state news agency SPA reported, Reuters reports.

Saudi Arabia reported its first case of the new coronavirus on Monday from an individual who had not disclosed his visit to Iran when entering Saudi Arabia.

“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 small 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 decision will be reviewed regularly and reversed when the situation changes, SPA added.

Saudis 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 travelers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) 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.

Visits by pilgrims accelerate during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, beginning this year in late April.