Hundreds of umrah pilgrims piled up at Juanda International Airport in Sidoarjo, East Java province on February 27, 2020. (Juni Kriswanto/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid Mideast Coronavirus Outbreak, Saudi Arabia Bans Travel to Holy Sites

Amid an intensifying outbreak of coronavirus in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia on Thursday took the near-unprecedented step of banning travel to Islam’s holiest sites. The restrictions prevent foreigners from visiting Mecca, the location of the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure toward which nearly 2 billion Muslims worldwide pray five times each day. Riyadh also suspended trips to the Prophet Muhammad Mosque in Medina. According to reports, over 220 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Mideast countries, although none so far in Saudi Arabia. Iran has thus far been hardest hit, as the official death toll from COVID-19 – the technical medical term for the illness caused by coronavirus – on Thursday climbed to 22. The Islamic Republic has come under fire for allegedly minimizing the severity of the outbreak, particularly in the holy city of Qom. Shi’ite pilgrims from the region have freely visited that city – where hundreds of people are now reportedly quarantined – and then returned home, even though local officials apparently were aware of the growing incidence of infection.

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