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Saudi Arabia bans travel to pilgrimage sites Mecca, Medina due to coronavirus

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims circle the Ka'baa, which they believe was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ismael, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. File Photo by Mohammad Kheirkhah/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/98c38eb564775067da451c5e10790213/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims circle the Ka'baa, which they believe was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ismael, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. File Photo by Mohammad Kheirkhah/UPI | License Photo

March 4 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia on Wednesday issued a temporary ban against Islamic religious pilgrimages to Mecca and a holy site in Medina, a measure to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

The government barred all Saudi Muslims or others from visiting the entire city of Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. The ban expands on restrictions issued last week against foreign Muslims making the pilgrimage, known as Umrah.

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Umrah is a non-compulsory ritual and the lesser-known of two annual pilgrimages to holy sites recommended by Islamic law. Seven million pilgrims visited Mecca between October 2018 and May 2019, according to Saudi government data.

Under Islamic law, Muslims may make a pilgrimage for Umrah at any time during the year. The larger and better-known pilgrimage, the Hajj, is set this year in July and has not yet been affected by restrictions.

"It was decided to ... suspend Umrah temporarily for citizens and residents of the Kingdom," the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia presently has one confirmed case of coronavirus, a Saudi national who recently returned from Iran. Tests on 51 others who came into contact with him were negative, health officials said. They are awaiting results for 19 more.

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The city of Qom in Iran, which is home to a shrine that's kissed and touched in reverence by pilgrims, has already documented multiple coronavirus cases. Iranian officials said 19 people have died among 139 confirmed cases, but experts say those figures may be under-reported.

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