Worshippers observe a safe distance as they perform noon prayer at Al Rajhi Mosque in Riyadh on Sunday. AFP
Tens of thousands of mosques across Saudi Arabia reopened on Sunday for the first time in more than two months, but worshippers have been 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, the third holiest site for Muslims after Saudi Arabia's Makkah and Madinah, also reopened for prayers for the first time since it was closed since mid-March. Throngs waited outside the holy site's gates before it opened early Sunday, 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 Sepulchre 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 the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
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 (six-feet) 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 will not be allowed inside mosques. The elderly and those with chronic conditions are being told to pray at home. People are also being advised to perform the mandatory ablution at home since washrooms at mosques will be closed, to use hand sanitisers and to bring their own prayer rugs and copies of the 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.
The new measures come as Saudi Arabia and other countries around the world begin to loosen restrictions and stay-at-home orders following weeks of curfews and lockdowns.
However, the Grand Mosque in Makkah, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba that Muslims around the world pray toward, will remain closed to the public. The city has been under a strict lockdown for several weeks. The mosque in Medina where the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is buried will be partially opened to the public to pray outside.
The continued closure of Makkah points to the increasing likelihood that the kingdom may suspend this year's annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage, which falls in late July. Already, a senior Saudi official has told prospective pilgrims not to plan for the Hajj this year amid the global pandemic.
A Palestinian man prays in front of Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem on Sunday. AFP
Despite taking early and unprecedented measures to curb the spread of the virus, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 83,000 people contracting the virus, including 480 deaths.
Some 1,500 holy sites are preparing to welcome visitors, the channel reported, showing footage of workers disinfecting floors and carpets. The decision comes weeks before the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah.
Some activities will remain banned, including weddings and corporate meetings. Social gatherings will continue to be limited to a maximum of 20 people, SPA said, citing an interior ministry source.
The Hajj, which begins on Wednesday, normally draws around 2.5 million people for five intense days of worship in one of the world's largest gatherings of people from around the world.
Sheikh Mohammed on Wednesday met a number of high-ranking military and police officials from the UAE and other nations, who attended the graduation ceremony of the 47th cohort of graduates of the Zayed II Military College.
Dubai Police and Civil Defence officials evacuated the building in recording time.
The two leaders also discussed bilateral cooperation across various domains, affirming their joint keenness for continuous consultation to benefit the mutual interests of their countries and peoples.