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Saudi Arabia bans pilgrim visits to holy sites amid coronavirus fears

 Saudi Arabia bans pilgrim visits to holy sites amid coronavirus fears
© Getty Images

Saudi Arabia has barred foreigners from entering the kingdom for the pilgrimage to Mecca and other Islamic holy sites amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

The move comes as the kingdom’s regional rival Iran has reported 254 cases of the virus, including the official tasked with heading its counter-coronavirus task force. More than 350 cases in the region overall have been reported.

Iran has seen the highest death toll outside China, at 26 thus far, but no cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia to date, The Associated Press reported.

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“Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus, and urges its citizens to exercise caution before traveling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks,” the Saudi foreign Ministry said in a statement announcing the decision. “We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm.”

Although the move is unprecedented in modern history, Saudi Arabia’s status as a destination for Muslims worldwide has been associated with the spread of illnesses before, including a 632 A.D. malaria outbreak and cholera outbreaks in 1821 and 1835.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome also led to public health concerns in 2012 and 2013, with the kingdom urging elderly and ill pilgrims not to make the trip.

The period for the pilgrimage required in Islam, the hajj, is set for later this year in late July and early August, but pilgrims head to the nation’s other holy sites year-round for separate pilgrimages known as the umrah, particularly for the holy month of Ramadan, which will begin in late April.

A letter Thursday to The Lancet medical journal urged better oversight of such pilgrimages, particularly due to inconsistent levels of disease surveillance infrastructure among pilgrims.

“Respiratory infections are the most common illness among pilgrims ... and the lack of social distancing among pilgrims as they engage in religious rituals amplifies their risk of acquiring and transmitting respiratory diseases,” the letter stated, according to the AP.