Mosques reopen in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem amid virus woes

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AP) — Tens of thousands of mosques across Saudi Arabia reopened yesterday for the first time in more than two months, with worshipers ordered to follow strict guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as Islam’s holiest site in Makkah remained closed to the public.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s holiest site outside of Saudi Arabia, also reopened for prayers for the first time since it was closed in mid-March.

With little regard for social distancing, throngs waited outside the holy site’s gates before it opened early yesterday, with many wearing surgical masks. As they were allowed to enter, the faithful stopped to have their temperature measured.

The mosque was one of Jerusalem’s many holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall, that were restricted to worshippers at the height of Israel’s coronavirus outbreak. Throughout that period, worshippers continued to pray in the alleyways outside the mosque.

In Saudi Arabia, the government prepared for the reopening of around 90,000 mosques after sanitising prayer rugs, washrooms and shelves holding copies of Al-Quran.

Muslims pray in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. PHOTO: AP

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs said millions of text messages were sent to people in multiple languages to inform them about the new rules for public prayer, which include keeping a two-metre distance between people during prayer, wearing face masks at all times and abstaining from greeting one another with handshakes or hugs.

Children under 15 years old were not being allowed inside mosques. The elderly and those with chronic conditions were being told to pray at home. People are also being advised to use hand sanitisers and to bring their own prayer rugs and Al-Quran.

The restrictions call for mosques to open just 15 minutes before each of the five daily prayers and to close 10 minutes after they conclude. Friday sermons and prayers are to last no longer than 15 minutes.

Yesterday, Saudi Arabia also lifted a ban on domestic air travel and permitted some public sector workers to resume office work again, though full attendance will not be allowed until mid-June.

However, the Grand Mosque in Makkah, which houses the Kaabah, will remain closed to the public. The city has been under a strict lockdown for several weeks. The mosque in Madinah where the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is buried will be partially opened to the public to pray outside.