Saudi Arabia will enforce a round-the-clock nationwide curfew during the five-day Eid al-Fitr holiday later this month to fight the coronavirus, the interior ministry said Tuesday, as infections spike.
The kingdom, which has reported the highest number of virus cases in the Gulf region, is scrambling to limit the spread of the deadly disease.
A full lockdown will be reimposed around the country from May 23-27, the ministry said in a statement released by the official Saudi Press Agency. The period coincides with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Most parts of the kingdom were put under full lockdown following the outbreak, but last month the government relaxed the curfew between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm.
Malls and retailers have been allowed to reopen, except in major hotspots including the holy city of Mecca — where confirmed cases have soared, despite a stringent lockdown.
— New Straits Times (@NST_Online) May 13, 2020
The health ministry said Tuesday the number of COVID-19 deaths had risen to 264 and confirmed infections to 42,925, while 15,257 people have recovered.
In March, Saudi Arabia suspended the year-round “umrah” pilgrimage over fears of the disease spreading in Islam’s holiest cities. This time Eid al-Fitr will be short of welcoming gestures and congratulations.
Possible cancellation of Hajj
Saudi Arabia has urged Muslims to delay their plans for the hajj, amid speculation that the obligatory pilgrimage may be canceled this year due to the coronavirus.
Earlier this year, Saudi authorities halted travel to holy sites as part of the umrah, the “lesser pilgrimage” that takes place throughout the year.
Canceling the hajj, however, would mean a massive economic hit for the country and many businesses globally, such as the hajj travel industry. Millions of Muslims visit the Saudi kingdom each year, and the pilgrimage has not been canceled since the founding of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932.
One of the earliest significant interruptions of the hajj took place in A.D. 930, when a sect of Ismailis, a minority Shiite community, known as the Qarmatians raided Mecca because they believed the hajj to be a pagan ritual.
The Qarmatians were said to have killed scores of pilgrims and absconded with the black stone of the Kaaba – which Muslims believed was sent down from heaven. They took the stone to their stronghold in modern-day Bahrain.
Hajj was suspended until the Abbasids, a dynasty that ruled over a vast empire stretching across North Africa, the Middle East to modern-day India from A.D. 750-1258, paid a ransom for its return over 20 years later.
Saudi Arabia has called on Muslims across the world to put their hajj preparations on hold. The corona pandemic is impacting one of the central pillars of Islamic life. But how can Saudi Arabia’s cancellation of the hajj be justified theologically? https://t.co/zZHWVEDQWH pic.twitter.com/R9s7wwF7Ot
— QantaraEN (@QantaraEN) April 25, 2020
Political disagreements and conflict have often meant that pilgrims from certain places were kept from performing hajj because of lack of protection along overland routes into the Hijaz, the region in the west of Saudi Arabia where both Mecca and Medina are located.
In A.D. 983, the rulers of Baghdad and Egypt were at war. The Fatimid rulers of Egypt claimed to be the true leaders of Islam and opposed the rule of the Abbasid dynasty in Iraq and Syria.
Their political tug-of-war kept various pilgrims from Mecca and Medina for eight years, until A.D. 991.
Authorities are yet to announce whether they will proceed with this year’s hajj — scheduled for late July — but they have urged Muslims to temporarily defer preparations for the annual pilgrimage.
Last year, some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world to participate in the hajj, which Muslims are obliged to perform at least once during their lifetime.
The Arab world’s biggest economy has also closed cinemas and restaurants and halted flights as it attempts to contain the virus.
King Salman has warned of a “more difficult” fight ahead against COVID-19, as the kingdom faces the double blow of virus-led shutdowns and crashing oil prices.
AFP with additional input from GVS News Desk