Saudi Arabia announced Thursday " temporarily " suspending the entry of pilgrims traveling to Mecca, the first holy place of Islam, a decision of unprecedented scale intended to prevent the " arrival " of the new coronavirus which has spread to the Gulf.
Ryad has not reported any Covid-19 infections on its soil, but most neighboring countries have registered dozens of cases in the past few days, the majority of whom have returned from a Shiite pilgrimage to Iran where the disease left 26 dead, heaviest balance sheet after that of China, home of the epidemic. In this context, the Saudi government has decided to " temporarily suspend entry into the kingdom to carry out Omra ", the small pilgrimage, said the Foreign Ministry in a statement.
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In 2003, Saudi Arabia suspended the granting of visas for Umrah but only to certain countries in Asia, due to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which had killed 774 people worldwide, far exceeded by the new coronavirus. But it is the first time that the measure concerns all pilgrims.
Omra is performed by the faithful in Mecca, in the west of the kingdom, by millions of Muslims at any time of the year, unlike hajj, the great pilgrimage carried out on a specific date a times a year.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj must take place this year between the end of July and the beginning of August. The Saudi authorities have not yet spoken on possible precautionary measures in the organization of the hajj which had gathered some 2.5 million worshipers in 2019.
The organization of the hajj and more generally the management of the holy places of Islam constitute for the kingdom a major logistical challenge as well as an important source of income.
For analyst Ali Bakeer, the epidemic “ casts doubt on the progress of the hajj. The calamities spent in the hajj suggest that the kingdom does not have the capacity to face a mass epidemic during the (great) pilgrimage ”. Ryad hopes to attract 2.7 million followers during the hajj of 2020, according to the website of the Ministry of Pilgrimage.
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But on Thursday, Saudi Arabia also suspended the entry into the country of travelers with a tourist visa and from countries where the new coronavirus is rife, according to criteria to be set by the health authorities.
" These procedures are temporary, and are subject to continuous assessment by the competent authorities ," said the foreign ministry, calling on Saudi nationals not to travel to the countries affected by the disease.
In Asia, thousands of candidates for the small pilgrimage are either stranded at airports or in the uncertainty of being able to travel to Saudi Arabia. This is particularly the case in Indonesia and Bangladesh, two large providers of pilgrims in Mecca.