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Saudi suspends umrah pilgrimage over coronavirus fears

The decision comes after Saudi Arabia last week suspended visas for the pilgrimage and barred citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council from entering two of Islam's holiest cities.

FILE: Muslim worshippers pray at the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on 23 June 2017, during the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan. Picture: AFP

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia on Wednesday suspended the year-round umrah pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina over coronavirus fears, the interior ministry said.

The Gulf state has decided "to suspend umrah temporarily for citizens and residents in the kingdom", the ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

They were also barred from "visits to the Prophet's mosque in Medina", according to a foreign ministry tweet.

The decision comes after Saudi Arabia last week suspended visas for the pilgrimage and barred citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council from entering two of Islam's holiest cities.

Saudi Arabia on Monday confirmed its first case of new coronavirus after one its citizens who had returned from COVID-19 hotspot Iran tested positive.

The unprecedented moves have left thousands of Muslim pilgrims in limbo, raising uncertainty over the annual hajj to Mecca scheduled for the end of July.

The holy sites, which draw millions of pilgrims every year, are a potential source of contagion but also a key revenue earner and a pillar of political legitimacy for Saudi rulers.