Masks and no ablution: Saudis flock to reopened mosques

Riyadh (AFP) –


Mask-clad worshippers flocked to Saudi mosques that reopened nationwide Sunday, except in the holy city of Mecca, more than two months after congregational prayers were halted under a coronavirus-triggered lockdown.

Complying with stringent social distancing rules, worshippers kept a minimum of two metres apart as many voiced elation over the government decision to allow more than 90,000 mosques across the kingdom to re-open.

They had been instructed to bring their own prayer mats and to perform the cleansing ritual, or ablution, at home, instead of in mosque grounds.

"Worshippers rushed to the home of God to perform their obligatory duty (prayers) after the reopening of mosques," the ministry of Islamic affairs said on Twitter.

The ministry posted a video showing a mosque with many worshippers wearing face masks and reaching out for a large bottle of hand sanitiser after prayers.

Hundreds of people headed to Riyadh's Al-Rajhi mosque, where they had their temperatures checked before entering.

Multiple television screens inside the mosque displayed written instructions, including the need to maintain distance between the worshippers to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Authorities have instructed mosques to avoid crowding and the distribution of food, drinks, incense and miswak twigs used to clean teeth, according to the ministry.

"My feelings are indescribable. We are so happy. Thank God we are back in (His) house," Abdulrahman, 45, told AFP at Al-Rajhi mosque.

"All the precautionary measures have been put in place here."

But some took to social media to complain that worshippers in other mosques were not strictly complying with the rules.

"I prayed, praise be to God, in the neighbourhood mosque... and it was a beautiful feeling," said one Twitter user.

"But I swear to God that some people do not care about anything. No face mask. No rug."

- Easing curbs -

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, had shut down mosques nationwide for more than two months to limit the spread of the virus.

The kingdom, which has reported the highest number of coronavirus cases in the Gulf, is emerging from a full nationwide curfew imposed during Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marked the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Domestic air traffic also resumed on Sunday, with state media saying around 100 flights were scheduled.

The interior ministry intends to ease restrictions in a phased manner, with the curfew lifted nationwide -- except in Mecca -- between 6:00 am and 8:00 pm (0300 GMT and 1700 GMT) until June 20.

The kingdom will lift the lockdown entirely from June 21, Mecca aside.

In Mecca, a virus hotspot, the curfew will be lifted between 6:00 am and 3:00 pm until June 20, and thereafter the curfew will be shortened by a further five hours.

Saudi Arabia has reported more than 85,000 coronavirus infections and 503 deaths from COVID-19.

In March, it suspended the year-round "umrah" pilgrimage over fears of the disease spreading in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

That suspension will remain in place until further notice, the interior ministry said.

Authorities are yet to announce whether they will proceed with this year's hajj -- scheduled for late July -- but they have urged Muslims to temporarily defer preparations for the annual pilgrimage.

Last year, some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from around the world to participate in the hajj, which Muslims are obliged to perform at least once during their lifetime.

But mosque employees and security personnel have been allowed to attend prayers.