‘All Muslims’ intending to travel to Islam’s holiest sites to perform the hajj should delay making plans this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, a senior Saudi official has said.

In February, the kingdom took the extraordinary decision to close off the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to foreigners, a step which was not taken even during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.

Restrictions have tightened in the kingdom as it grapples with 1,563 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 10 reported deaths so far.

Every year, as many as two million Muslims perform the hajj to their holy sites – a pilgrimage those who can are expected to perform at least once during their lifetime.

The Middle East has more than 71,000 confirmed cases of the virus, most of those in Iran, and over 3,300 deaths.

Saudi Arabia has barred people from entering or exiting three major cities, including Mecca and Medina, and imposed a night-time curfew across the country. 

Like other countries around the world and in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has suspended all inbound and outbound commercial flights.

‘The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all Muslims and nationals,’ Saudi hajj and umrah minister Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Banten told state television. ‘That’s why we have requested from all Muslims around the world to hold on to signing any agreements until we have a clear vision.’

He spoke as the sound of crickets echoed in the background late on Tuesday night at the Grand Mosque of Mecca, which normally draws thousands of worshipers throughout the day and night, circling it and praying toward it.

Each year, up to two million Muslims perform the hajj, a physically demanding and often costly pilgrimage that draws the faithful from around the world.

The hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims to perform once in their lifetime, is seen as a chance to wipe clean past sins and bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims.

Standing in Mecca in front of the cube-shaped Kaaba that Muslims pray toward five times daily, Mr Banten also said the kingdom was already providing care for 1,200 pilgrims stuck in the holy city due to global travel restrictions. 

A number of them are being quarantined in hotels in Mecca, he said.

The pilgrimage was expected to begin in late July this year.

The kingdom’s Al Saud ruling family stakes its legitimacy in this oil-rich nation on overseeing and protecting the hajj sites.

Saudi King Salman, whose country is presiding over the Group of 20 nations this year, has said his government will cover the costs of treating all coronavirus patients in the country, including visitors, foreign residents and those residing illegally.

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