Saudi Arabia temporarily bans pilgrimage to Mecca amid coronavirus concerns

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MORTON GROVE, Ill. — Saudi Arabia on Wednesday banned its citizens and other residents of the kingdom from performing the pilgrimage in Mecca.

The pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of the Islamic faith. A group of about 20 families from the Chicago area were supposed to fly to Saudi Arabia on March 20 for a nine day journey, but the trip was canceled.

"Seeing the images emerging of the Kaaba and courtyard being completely empty is surreal," Arjumand Khan, whose trip to Saudi Arabia was canceled, said. "Even my father in his 70s has never seen it without a single person around. It has millions of people circling and performing this ritual."

So far, there is one confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country — a Saudi national returning from Iran.

The Centers for Disease Control has banned all foreign nationals from Iran and China from entering the United States. The CDC is also recommending travelers avoid non-essential trips to South Korea and Italy. The CDC also said the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions should avoid going to Japan to protect themselves.

"The elderly are susceptible to it. My sister and I have young children. We were getting nervous about our safety going," Khan said.

Khan was trying to make the trip later this month with her parents and siblings. They were able to get a refund on the trip.

"It was disappointing, but given the circumstances, we felt it was best to cancel now that the mosque is closed," she said. "We're hoping we can reschedule soon."

Several imams in the U.S. advised Muslim worshippers that it is religiously permissible to pray at home rather than attend Friday group prayers, which are generally considered obligatory for adult men.

After the prayers, Muslim congregants typically greet one another with hugs, handshakes and cheek kisses. Now, some mosque leaders are halting the custom of shaking the imam’s hand after prayer and are advising worshippers to find alternative greetings.

“For the time being, it may be worth avoiding touch and switching to a hand on the heart, a respectful nod, and a warm smile,” Omar Ricci, spokesman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, wrote in an email to congregants.

The pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca is a religious duty for Muslims. Nearly 7 million people make the the pilgrimage every year. This year, it was set for the end of July

It is unknown how long the restrictions will be in place.

An aerial view shows an empty white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, on March 6, 2020. - An eerie emptiness enveloped the sacred Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, where attendance at Friday prayers was hit by measures to protect against the deadly new coronavirus. (Photo by Bandar ALDANDANI / AFP) (Photo by BANDAR ALDANDANI/AFP via Getty Images)

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