Saudi empties Islam's holiest site for 'sterilisation'
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Mecca (Saudi Arabia) (AFP)
Saudi Arabia on Thursday emptied Islam's holiest site for sterilisation over fears of the new coronavirus, an unprecedented move after the kingdom suspended the year-round umrah pilgrimage.
State television relayed stunning images of an empty white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba -– a large black cube structure inside Mecca's Grand Mosque, which is usually packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims.
The move was a "temporary preventive measure" but the upper floors of the Grand Mosque were still open for prayers, a Saudi official told AFP.
He called the measure "unprecedented".
On Wednesday, the kingdom halted the umrah pilgrimage for its own citizens and residents.
The move came after authorities last week suspended visas for the umrah and barred citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council from entering Mecca and Medina.
Saudi Arabia on Thursday declared three new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of reported infections to five.
The umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe annually.
The decision to suspend the umrah comes ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramadan starting in late April, which is a favoured period for pilgrimage.
It is unclear how the coronavirus will affect the hajj, due to start in late July.
Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world in 2019 to take part in the hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam as Muslim obligations are known.
The event is a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites, making attendees vulnerable to contagion.
© 2020 AFP