Saudi Arabia suspends travel for pilgrimages to Islam’s holiest sites over novel coronavirus fears

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(CNN) — Saudi Arabia has suspended pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina for people outside the country over novel coronavirus fears. The kingdom, which bills itself as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, will open religious rituals to residents and nationals only.

In recent years, diplomatic rifts in the region restricted travel for pilgrims from Qatar and Iran, prompting an outcry. But a wholesale temporary ban on foreign visits to the holy sites is a first in living memory.

Across the Middle East, governments have been struggling to cope with the spread of Covid-19. Iran, a regional breeding ground for the virus, has canceled this Friday’s prayers in affected provinces. Iraq has closed schools, public offices and other public gatherings until March 7.

Kuwait, which has the second-largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases after Iran, is also scrambling to stem the spread of the virus, evacuating citizens from Iran and Italy, which has also seen a surge in the virus.

The majority of Middle Eastern coronavirus cases have come from Iran, one of the biggest outbreak countries outside of China. Iran has 141 confirmed cases, and 22 have died from the sickness, according to state media.

Saudi Arabia, which froze diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016, has no reported cases of the virus. In addition to stopping pilgrimages for outsiders, preventative measures include suspending the entry of nationals of “countries with confirmed Coronavirus outbreaks,” according to a tweet by the Saudi foreign ministry.

“Saudi Arabia stress that these measures are temporary and subject to continuous evaluation by the relevant authorities,” a graphic embedded in the tweet said. “We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm. #CoronaVirus #COVID19”

This story was first published on CNN.com. "Saudi Arabia suspends travel for pilgrimages to Islam’s holiest sites over novel coronavirus fears."