Fears over the new coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East disrupted the practice of Islam itself in the region on March 4, as Saudi Arabia banned its citizens and residents from performing the Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca and Iran canceled Friday prayers in major cities.
The Saudi decision expands a ban last week on foreigners visiting Mecca and Medina, home to the holiest sites in Islam. Meanwhile, authorities halted Friday prayers across all Iranian provincial capitals amid the country’s growing coronavirus outbreak.
Friday is the main congregational day of prayer in Islam, and traditionally an important event for Iran’s clerical rulers. Tehran and other areas had canceled Friday prayers last week over the outbreak.
Iran earlier announced that the new coronavirus has killed 92 people amid 2,922 confirmed cases across the Islamic Republic, the highest death toll in the world outside of China.
Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour announced the new figures at a news conference in Tehran, raising Iran’s death toll from the new illness to higher than Italy’s, where there has also been a serious spike in infections.
There are now over 3,140 cases of the new virus across the Middle East. Of those outside Iran in the region, most link back to the Islamic Republic.
The virus has sickened top leaders inside Iran’s civilian government and Shiite theocracy. Iran stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to reports from hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 90,000 people and caused over 3,100 deaths.
Experts worry Iran may be under-reporting the number of cases it has.
“The virus has no wings to fly,” Jahanpour said. “We are the ones who transfer it to each other.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meanwhile acknowledged that the virus was in nearly all of Iran’s 31 provinces while speaking at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
“This disease is a widespread one,” he said, according to a transcript. “It encompasses almost all of our provinces and is, in a sense, a global disease that many countries in the world have become infected with, and we must work together to tackle this problem as quickly as possible.”
Saudi Arabia last week closed off the holiest sites in Islam to foreign pilgrims over the coronavirus, disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affecting plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage.
By Amir Vahdat and Jon Gambrell