DUBAI – Tens of thousands of mosques across Saudi Arabia reopened Sunday for the first time in more than two months, with worshipers ordered to follow strict guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as Islam's holiest site in Mecca remained closed to the public.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Islam's holiest site outside of Saudi Arabia, also reopened for prayers for the first time since it was closed in mid-March.
With little regard for social distancing, 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 Sepulcher and the Western Wall, whose access was restricted at the height of Israel’s coronavirus outbreak. Throughout that period, worshipers continued to pray in the alleyways outside the mosque.
Jews also resumed their pilgrimages Sunday to the hilltop compound they revere as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish biblical temples.
In Saudi Arabia, the government prepared for the reopening of around 90,000 mosques after sanitizing 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-meter (six-foot) 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 were not being allowed inside mosques. The elderly and those with chronic conditions were 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 sanitizers 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.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia also lifted a ban on domestic air travel and permitted some public sector workers to resume office work again, though full attendance will not be allowed until mid-June.
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 Mecca, 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 is buried will be partially opened to the public to pray outside.
The continued closure of Mecca 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.
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.
Israel has recorded fewer than 300 deaths and mostly kept its daily infection count to the low dozens since the beginning of May. But it also imposed severe restrictions that battered its economy and sent its unemployment rate skyrocketing. Many of those restrictions, including on places of worship, began to be eased earlier this month.
On Sunday night, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, announced it would restrict movement within the sheikhdom for a week beginning Tuesday. The government said in a statement it would “reduce contact, curb the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of all community members.”
In Pakistan, meanwhile, the government withdrew limits on congregations in mosques and churches, the latest easing of restrictions.
The country's coronavirus death toll of 1,483 is third only to Iran and Turkey in the Middle East, and 88 new deaths were recorded overnight. Pakistan has an acute bed shortage and near daily warnings from health professionals to tighten lock down measures. The government has kept mosques open, urging safe distancing but not enforcing it.
In Lebanon, the Ministry of Energy announced the extension of a deadline for submitting bids for the country’s second offshore oil and gas licensing round until an unspecified date before the end of 2021 because of coronavirus. The date has been already postponed twice so far from Jan. 31 until the end of April and later until June 1.
Lebanon has registered 27 deaths from the coronavirus and reported 29 new cases Sunday, raising the registered cases to 1,220.
Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.