After two months, Saudi Arabia has eased restrictions on mosques. Physical distancing and face masks remain mandatory. The elderly, children and the chronically ill are still banned. Sermons and prayers by clerics cannot exceed 15 minutes.
Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – After more than two months, mosques in Saudi Arabia opened their doors for the first time this weekend. This follows the decision by the kingdom's authorities to ease lockdown restrictions imposed to contain the COVID- 19 pandemic.
“It is great to feel the mercy of God and once again call people for prayers at mosques instead of at their homes,” said Abdulmajeed al-Mohaisen, who issues the call to prayer at Al-Rajhi Mosque, one of the largest in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
At dawn, early worshippers headed to mosques, wearing protective masks and personal prayer mats, avoiding handshakes and staying two metres apart.
Worshippers must perform ablution rites, washing the face, arms and legs before prayer, at home. However, seniors, minors under 15 and people with chronic diseases are still not allowed in mosques.
In a tweet, the kingdom’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs noted that “Worshippers rushed to the home of God to perform their obligatory duty (prayers) after the reopening of mosques.”
The ministry also posted a video showing a mosque with many worshippers wearing face masks and reaching out for a large bottle of hand sanitiser after prayers.
The authorities urged mosques to avoid crowding and handing out of food and drinks, and using incense. However, in some places, people failed to respect the rules.
A ban remains in place for pilgrimages (Hajj and Umrah), which usually attract millions of people from all over the world every year.
So far Saudi Arabia, a nation of about 30 million, has reported more than 83,000 cases of the novel coronavirus with 480 official deaths, the highest numbers among Gulf states. However, this is still far less than what reported in Europe and the United States.
In Jerusalem al-Aqsa mosque, the third most important holy place in Islam, reopened to the public attracting hundreds of Muslims. Upon entering, some worshippers chanted "God is greater" (ʾAllāhu ʾakbaru), whilst others kissed the ground.
In the Holy Land, Christian places of worship like the Holy Sepulchre and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem also reopened.
Despite the easing, the same measures imposed in other parts of the world to contain the coronavirus pandemic remain in force everywhere; they include minimum distancing, temperature taking at entrances and compulsory masks.
Al-Aqsa was closed in March and remained out of bounds to worshippers during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer, which just ended.
In recent days, as the authorities prepared to ease restrictions, millions of Muslims shared messages in different languages about what to do when visiting mosques, including the requirement for clerics to keep sermons and prayers to no more than 15 minutes.