MAKKAH: An eerie emptiness enveloped the sacred Kaaba in Makkah’s Grand Mosque, where attendance at Friday prayers was hit by measures to protect against coronavirus.
The imam said during his sermon he hoped for an end to the epidemic and backed a decision by the Saudi government to halt Umrah.
“God, I seek refuge in you from the calamity and the epidemic,” said Sheikh Abdullah Awad al Juhani, without mentioning coronavirus by name.
“The measures by the kingdom to suspend Umrah to limit the spread of this epidemic are in line with texts of the Sharia,” he told worshippers.
While thousands of people attended the sermon, Friday prayers usually attract hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
“I had a very strange and difficult feeling as I was headed to the mosque,” an Egyptian worshipper, who has lived in Makkah for six years but did not want to give his name, said. “I felt deprived of the Kaaba,” he said.
“The fact that it is empty (around the Kaaba) is very scary,” the 38-year-old engineer said.
The white tiles surrounding this focal point, at the heart of the Grand Mosque, were untrodden on Friday.
Authorities had emptied the Grand Mosque for sterilisation on Thursday, after announcing a halt to the Umrah.
Friday “prayers took place inside the mosque and on the upper floors, but not in the Tawaf area”, a mosque official said.
Nearly half of the mosque’s area was closed, he added.
The area around the Kaaba will remain closed for duration of the Umrah suspension as a “precautionary measure”, but prayers inside the mosque will continue, the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
Additionally, both the Grand Mosque and the Masjid-i-Nabavi, in Madina, will be closed an hour after Isha prayers to allow cleaning and sterilisation, it added.
The mosques will reopen an hour before Fajr prayers.
The moves come after authorities last week suspended Umrah visas and barred citizens from the Gulf Cooperation Council from entering Makkah and Madina.
Saudi Arabia declared three new coronavirus cases on Thursday, bringing the total number of reported infections to five.
A Saudi official blamed Iran, which has emerged as a major hotspot with a death toll of 124, for “granting Saudi citizens entry to its territories without stamping their passports”.
This statement followed an announcement by the health ministry that Saudis tested positive after returning from Iran via Bahrain without disclosing their initial point of departure.
Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented move to halt Umrah has left thousands of pilgrims in limbo, raising uncertainty over the Haj, due in July.
Turkish pilgrim Hussameddine Ali, who arrived in Saudi Arabia last week before the decision to halt Umrah, expressed disappointment that he was not allowed close to the Kaaba.
“I will probably return to Turkey,” he said. “We are sitting in the hotel the whole time... what are we doing.”
Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2020