Religious authorities across the Middle East have moved to cancel or limit weekly prayer gatherings to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
In Kuwait on Friday, religious authorities asked Muslims to pray at home as the Gulf states stepped up measures to fight the spread the novel virus.
In Jerusalem, Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders said services would continue to be held in the Holy Land but moved to limit indoor gatherings after the Israeli Health Ministry said they should not exceed 100 people.
The Islamic endowment that oversees the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, said Friday prayers would be held as normal but encouraged people to pray in the outer courtyards and refrain from crowding inside the mosques.
It advised the elderly and sick not to enter crowded mosques.
Hard-hit Iran cancelled Friday prayers in major cities, and Egypt has ordered all mosques to limit Friday prayers, including the weekly sermon, to no more than 15 minutes.
The prayers usually last around an hour.
The outbreak has reached Iran’s top officials, with its senior vice president, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials among those infected.
Iran has reported more than 10,000 cases and over 400 deaths, making it among the worst outbreaks worldwide. There are concerns that the number of infections is much higher.
Iraq, which has reported more than 80 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and eight deaths so far, scrapped Friday prayers in Karbala and in the country’s predominantly Kurdish northern region.
Last week, Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged people to abide by a ban on mass prayers.
In Lebanon, Friday prayers have been temporarily suspended in all Shia mosques. The country’s top Sunni authority has said it is forbidden for anyone with a contagious disease to attend prayers and has urged elderly people and those with weakened immune systems to pray at home.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia banned “Umrah” for residents and citizens. Umrah, which can be completed in a few hours, is a pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time of year, unlike the much more intensive and time-consuming Hajj – one of the five pillars of Islam performed during a few specific days each year.
Saudi Arabia also said it was preventing foreigners from reaching the holy city of Mecca and the Kaaba, the building at the centre of the Great Mosque, and said travel was suspended to Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina.
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa released nearly 1,500 prisoners, around 900 of whom were pardoned. The move appeared aimed at preventing the virus from spreading inside detention facilities.
The moves to limit religious gatherings come on the heels of several cancellations of sporting events, conferences and other meetings worldwide.
To date, the virus has infected nearly 130,000 people worldwide and caused more than 4,700 deaths.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes.
But the rapid spread of the virus has caused worldwide alarm, tanking financial markets, disrupting travel and leading to large-scale shutdowns in some areas.