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Saudi Arabia reopens area around sacred Kaaba amid virus measures

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Mecca, Mar 7 :  Saudi Arabia reopened Saturday the area around the sacred Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, reversing one of a series of measures introduced to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

Saudi authorities this week suspended the year-round umrah pilgrimage, during which worshippers circle the Kaaba seven times, and also announced the temporary closure of the area around the cube structure.

But King Salman has “allowed for the opening of the Mataf (where people circle the Kaaba) for non-umrah performers” starting on Saturday at dawn, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

Hundreds of Muslims were seen rotating around the Kaaba, but the area between two hills that pilgrims must go between seven times to complete umrah remained closed.

Barricades blocked access to the Kaaba, draped in a gold-embroidered black cloth, while men in green uniforms cleaned the white-tiled floor.

Authorities had emptied the Grand Mosque for sterilisation on Thursday.

The unprecedented suspension of the umrah has raised uncertainty over the annual hajj pilgrimage, scheduled for the end of July.

Authorities have said prayers will be allowed at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and in Mecca’s Grand Mosque while the umrah is suspended, apart from during nighttime cleaning and sterilisation.

The suspension has left thousands of Muslim pilgrims in limbo.

Around two-thirds of the 18.3 million umrah participants in 2018 were citizens and residents of the kingdom, according to government statistics.