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Saudis Urge Muslims to Delay Hajj      04/01 06:09

   DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- A senior Saudi official urged more than 
1 million Muslims intending to perform the hajj to delay making plans this year 
--- comments suggesting the pilgrimage could be cancelled due to the new 
coronavirus pandemic. 

   In February, the kingdom took the extraordinary decision to  close off the 
holy cities of Mecca and Medina to foreigners over the virus, a step which 
wasn't taken even during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions 

   Restrictions have tightened in the kingdom as it grapples with over 1,500 
confirmed cases of the new virus. The kingdom has reported 10 deaths so far. 

   The Middle East has over 75,000 confirmed cases of the virus, most of those 
in Iran, and over 3,400 deaths. Iran's health ministry spokesman, Kianoush 
Jahanpour, said Wednesday that the virus had killed another 138 people, pushing 
the country's death toll to 3,036 amid 47,593 confirmed cases.

   "The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all Muslims 
and nationals," Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Banten 
told state television. "That's why we have requested from all Muslims around 
the world to hold onto signing any agreements (with tour operators) until we 
have a clear vision."

   He spoke as the sound of crickets echoed in the background late Tuesday 
night at the Grand Mosque of Mecca, which normally draws thousands of 
worshippers throughout the day and night, circling it and praying toward it.

   Saudi Arabia has barred people from entering or exiting three major cities, 
including Mecca and Medina, and imposed a nighttime curfew across the country. 
Like other countries around the world and in the Middle East, the kingdom also 
suspended all inbound and outbound commercial flights. 

   Each year, up to 2 million Muslims perform the hajj, a physically demanding 
and often costly pilgrimage that draws the faithful from around the world. The 
hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims to perform once in their lifetime, is 
seen as a chance to wipe clean past sins and bring about greater humility and 
unity among Muslims.

   Standing in Mecca in front of the cube-shaped Kaaba that Muslims pray toward 
five times daily, Banten also said the kingdom was already providing care for 
1,200 pilgrims stuck in the holy city due to global travel restrictions. A 
number of them are being quarantined in hotels in Mecca, he said. 

   The state-run Saudi Press Agency cited Banten's remarks in stories early 
Wednesday, saying that Muslims should "be patient" in making their plans for 
the hajj. The pilgrimage was expected to begin in late July this year. 

   The kingdom's Al Saud ruling family stakes its legitimacy in this oil-rich 
nation on overseeing and protecting the hajj sites. Saudi King Salman, whose 
country is presiding over the Group of 20 nations this year, has said his 
government will cover the costs treatment of all coronavirus patients in the 
country, including visitors, foreign residents and those residing illegally.

   Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani again slammed the U.S. sanctions 
on his country Wednesday. He said now would have been "the best time" for the 
Trump administration to ease sanctions on Iran, reeling from the region's worst 
outbreaks of the virus. 

   "It was the best historical opportunity for America," Rouhani said in 
remarks at the weekly Cabinet meeting. "They (the U.S.) could have apologized. 
This was a human issue and no one would criticize them for backing off," 

   President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran's 2015 nuclear agreement 
with world powers and reimposed sweeping sanctions. The U.S. has offered 
humanitarian aid to Iran but authorities in Tehran have refused.

   Iran has been urging the international community to lift sanctions, and is 
seeking a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund for the first 
time in decades.


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