Prayer services scrapped in Mideast over coronavirus fears

Religious sites have been areas of particular concern for Middle Eastern states battling COVID-19's spread, as countries all over the world take increasingly stringent measures to combat the outbreak.

LONDON - Kuwait's religious authorities asked Muslims to pray at home on Friday as Gulf Arab states stepped up measures to fight the spread of the new coronavirus outbreak.

Those measures were echoed across the Middle East as authorities moved to cancel or limit religious gatherings, most notably Friday prayers.

Meanwhile, authorities continued to take measures in the hope of preempting an acceleration of the disease's spread.

Bahrain ordered the release of hundreds of prisoners on Thursday, in one of the biggest pardons since the 2011 uprising against the monarchy, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) which linked the decision to efforts to contain the virus and stop it from spreading throughout detention facilities.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a decree granting pardon for 901 prisoners. A further 585 prisoners will spend the remainder of their sentences in rehabilitation and training programs, the state-run Bahrain news agency reported.

Those moves came as dozens more cases of coronavirus were registered in Gulf Arab states over a period of 24 hours. More than 700 infections have been reported up to Friday in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, but no deaths have been announced so far.

Qatar has 262 cases, Bahrain 195 and the United Arab Emirates 85. Saudi Arabia reported 17 additional cases, taking its total to 62. Kuwait had reported 100 cases of the virus as of Friday, while Oman has so far reported 12. Authorities say most of those infected in Gulf states had travelled to Iran, the regional epicentre of the outbreak, or been in contact with returnees who had travelled to Iran, mostly to visit Shiite religious sites in the Islamic republic.

Iran had already cancelled Friday prayers in major cities, amid fears that large gatherings of people at religious sites could be disastrous as Tehran battles one of the worst outbreaks outside of China, where the disease was first recorded.

Iran announced on Friday that the new coronavirus claimed another 85 lives, the highest single-day death toll in one of the world's worst affected countries, taking its total number of deaths to 514 with 11,364 confirmed cases. The real number of cases might be even higher, as questions have been raised about authorities' transparency.

Authorities also said that Iranian military forces would clear the streets nationwide within 24 hours and all citizens will be checked for the new coronavirus in a bid to halt its spread.

"During the next 10 days, the entire Iranian nation will be monitored once through cyberspace, by phone and, if necessary, in person, and those suspected of being ill will be fully identified," said armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri.

Iranian state TV announced that Ali Akbar Velayati, a close adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quarantined at home after testing positive for the virus.  Khamenei himself was recently seen wearing disposable gloves at a tree-planting ceremony, apparently out of caution about the virus.

Many of Iran’s top officials have been confirmed to have caught the virus, including its senior vice president, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials.

Outside the Gulf region, Iraq has been particularly susceptible to the outbreak due to its close proximity and relations with Iran. Baghdad has recorded over 80 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and eight deaths so far.

Muslim worshipers pray in a courtyard of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, with the Dome of the Rock in the background
Muslim worshipers pray in a courtyard of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, with the Dome of the Rock in the background

Praying for the infected

Iraqi religious authorities scrapped Friday prayers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where thousands usually gather to hear the weekly religious sermon by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Religious sites have been areas of particular concern when it comes to the spreading of the virus, with Iraq's first cases being recorded amongst Shiite pilgrims who had travelled to the holy city of Qom in Iran.

Iran itself has already cancelled Friday prayers in major cities, while Egypt has ordered all mosques to limit Friday prayers, including the weekly sermon, to no more than 15 minutes.

In Lebanon, Friday prayers have been temporarily suspended in all Shiite mosques. The country's top Sunni authority forbade anyone with a contagious disease to attend prayers, and has urged the elderly and those with immune system deficiencies to pray at home. Lebanon has so far recorded 77 cases of coronavirus and three deaths, according to the health ministry.

Israel has reported more than 100 cases, with the numbers ticking up in recent days despite a number of tough measures taken in recent weeks to slow the spread of the virus. There were 30 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the occupied Palestinian territories as of March 12.

In the Gaza Strip, many mosques limited prayers's time to 15 minutes and urged worshippers to take precautions. With travel into and out of the coastal enclave being restricted by the Israeli and Egyptian blockade and medical resources being limited, Palestinians in Gaza - currently ruled by the Islamist group Hamas - have yet to record any cases of the virus.

In the Holy City of Jerusalem, Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders said services would continue to be held, but moved to limit indoor gatherings.

The Waqf that oversees the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem said Friday prayers would be held as normal, but encouraged Palestinian Muslims to pray in the outer courtyards of the compound and refrain from crowding inside the mosques.

Some 10,000 Muslim worshippers attended the prayers, according to Sheikh Omar Kiswani, the director of the mosque. Most prayed in the courtyards, heeding the advice of Muslim officials. A short, 13-minute sermon was devoted to raising awareness on how to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, took even more stringent measures by ordering Jews to stop visiting the Western Wall, cancel mass prayers and pray near their homes "until the wrath passes and mercy comes from heaven.”

The Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem called on churches to enforce the Israeli Health Ministry’s guidelines that prayer gatherings should not exceed more than 100 people. It invited everyone to pray for “those directly and indirectly affected by this malevolence.”