Religious services curbed across Mideast over virus fears

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              Malaysian Muslims prays during Friday prayers which was held with shorter sermons to prevent the spread of new coronavirus at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, March 13, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
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JERUSALEM (AP) — Religious authorities cancelled or limited weekly prayer gatherings across the Middle East on Friday to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus as they encouraged the faithful to pray for those afflicted by the global pandemic.

Iran, which is mired in the worst outbreak in the region, meanwhile announced another 85 deaths, pushing its total number of fatalities to 514 amid 11,364 confirmed cases. The real number of cases might be even higher, as questions have been raised about authorities’ transparency.

Sudan reported its first case, a man in his 50s who died Thursday after returning from a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates. The east African country is in disarray after the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir last year, and its infrastructure has suffered from decades of sanctions.

Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem said services would continue to be held in the Holy Land but moved to limit indoor gatherings after the Israeli Health Ministry said they should not exceed 100 people.

At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site where Jews can pray, authorities limited entrance to enclosed areas. But the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the site, said there would be no restrictions in the main plaza as it is a “wide, open space.”

In recent days the foundation has encouraged people to join in special prayers for victims of the virus, which has infected more than 130,000 people worldwide and caused more than 5,000 deaths.

Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, meanwhile urged people to stop visiting the Western Wall, cancel mass prayers and pray near their homes “until the wrath passes and mercy comes from heaven.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes.

But the rapid spread of the virus has caused worldwide alarm, tanking financial markets, disrupting travel and leading to large-scale shutdowns in some areas.

Some 10,000 Muslim worshippers attended Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, according to Sheikh Omar Kiswani, the director of the mosque. Most prayed in outdoor courtyards, heeding the advice of Muslim officials who warned against crowding inside the mosques themselves.

A short, 13-minute sermon was devoted to raising awareness on how to prevent the spread of the virus. The site is the third holiest in Islam and the holiest for Jews because it was the location of the Jewish temples in antiquity.

The Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem called on churches to enforce the Health Ministry’s guidelines, including with Sunday services. It invited everyone to pray for “those directly and indirectly affected by this malevolence.”

Hard-hit Iran has already cancelled Friday prayers in major cities, and on Friday Kuwait said all public prayers would be cancelled until further notice. Egypt ordered all mosques to limit Friday prayers, including the weekly sermon, to no more than 15 minutes. The prayers usually last around an hour.

Iraq, which has reported more than 93 confirmed cases of coronavirus and nine deaths so far, has scrapped Friday prayers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose Friday sermon from Karbala provides guidance for millions, last week urged people to abide by a ban on mass prayers.

In Lebanon, Friday prayers have been temporarily suspended in all Shiite mosques. The country’s top Sunni authority has said it is forbidden for anyone with a contagious disease to attend prayers and has urged elderly people and others at risk to pray at home.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah, said in a speech focused on the virus that his Iran-backed group would put all its paramedics and medical capabilities at the service of the country’s health ministry.

“We should consider ourselves at war” against the virus, he said.

Even in the Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized power in 2007, and which has no reported cases, many mosques kept prayers to 15 minutes and urged worshippers to take precautions.

The moves to limit prayers come on the heels of several cancellations of sporting events, conferences and other gatherings worldwide.

Dubai announced that a major horse race planned for March 28 would be held without spectators. The Dubai World Cup is the world’s richest purse for horse racing, with a $12 million prize last year.

Bahrain indefinitely postponed its Formula One Grand Prix motor race, which had been scheduled to take place later this month.

The Gulf monarchy also released nearly 1,500 prisoners, around 900 of whom were pardoned. The move appeared aimed at preventing the virus from spreading inside detention facilities. It wasn’t immediately clear if those released included opposition activists detained as part of Bahrain’s yearslong crackdown on all dissent.

Tiny, energy-rich Qatar shut down all cinemas, theaters, museums, children’s play areas, gyms and wedding halls overnight.

Pakistan announced that all schools, colleges, universities and seminaries would be closed until April 5. It also postponed an annual military parade. Pakistan has had 28 people test positive, including seven near the border with Iran, where some 4,000 people returning from Iran have been quarantined.

In Iran, state-run TV announced that Ali Akbar Velayati was quarantined at home after testing positive for the virus. He is a close adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s 80-year-old supreme leader.

The outbreak has reached Iran’s top officials, with its senior vice president, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials among those infected.

In Israel, concerns about the virus may lead to a brief respite from the yearlong political deadlock between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, after three inconclusive elections.

Netanyahu, who is set to face trial on corruption allegations next week, has called for an emergency national government to combat the pandemic, and Gantz has said he is open to the idea. They are expected to hold talks in the coming days.

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.