Friday prayers across Middle East overshadowed by coronavirus fears
From Jerusalem to Mecca, 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 Mecca, 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 Mecca'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.
- Regional epicentre -
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 Shiite city of Karbala, home of the mausoleum of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
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.
- The Holy Land -
In the Palestinian territories, the first seven COVID-19 cases were confirmed Thursday, with a further 19 reported so far in Israel.
At Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, weekly prayers proceeded despite the Palestinian government announcing a state of emergency Thursday evening.
The mosque is managed by the Jordan Waqf (religious organisation), but entrances are controlled by Israel -- which has banned gatherings of more than 5,000 people.
An AFP photographer said inside the mosque was full but the large open spaces outside -- usually filled with people -- were empty.
A number of worshippers wore face masks, the photographer said.
"This Friday the number of worshippers is less than last week," said Ammar Juwalis after praying.
"It is required of us to pray each Friday. We are trying to be careful about corona," the 35-year-old said.
Jerusalem's Old City was unusually quiet at Friday lunchtime, an AFP journalist said, with only a few tourists wandering around, some wearing masks.
In Bethlehem, a Palestinian city about 10 kilometres (six miles) south of Jerusalem, authorities closed the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.
The Palestinian territories' first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in a Bethlehem hotel Thursday, after a group of Greek tourists visited.
Israeli authorities have banned tourist buses and visitors from Bethlehem from entering Jerusalem.
At Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, new restrictions mean than only 5,000 people can visit at a time.
© 2020 AFP