Mecca (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) - An eerie emptiness enveloped the sacred Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, where attendance at Friday prayers was hit by measures to protect against the deadly new coronavirus.
An imam said during his sermon he hoped for an end to the epidemic and backed a decision by Saudi Arabia's government to halt the year-round umrah pilgrimage.
"God, I seek refuge in you from the calamity and the epidemic," said Sheikh Abdullah Awad al-Juhani, without mentioning coronavirus by name.
"The measures by the kingdom to suspend umrah to limit the spread of this epidemic are in line with texts of the Sharia," he told worshippers.
While thousands of people attended the sermon, Friday prayers usually attract hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
"I had a very strange and difficult feeling as I was headed to the mosque," an Egyptian worshipper, who has lived in Mecca for six years but did not want to give his name, told AFP.
"I felt deprived of the Kaaba," he said, referring to the cube structure that is the focal point of Islam and draped in a gold-embroidered black cloth.
"The fact that it is empty (around the Kaaba) is very scary," the 38-year-old engineer said.
The white tiles surrounding this focal point, at the heart of the Grand Mosque and around which Muslims circle in pilgrimage, were untrodden on Friday.
Authorities had emptied the Grand Mosque for sterilisation on Thursday, after announcing the halt to the umrah.
Friday "prayers took place inside the mosque and on the upper floors but not in the tawaf area" where people circle the Kaaba, a mosque authority told AFP.
Nearly half of the mosque's area was closed, he added.
The area around the Kaaba will remain closed for the duration of the umrah suspension as a "precautionary measure", but prayers inside the mosque will continue, the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
Additionally, both the Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Medina will be closed an hour after the evening "Isha" prayer to allow cleaning and sterilisation, it added.
The mosques will reopen an hour before the dawn "Fajr" prayer.
- Disappointed pilgrims -
The moves come after authorities last week suspended visas for the umrah and barred citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council from entering Mecca and Medina.
The umrah, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe annually.
Saudi Arabia on Thursday declared three new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of reported infections to five.
A Saudi official blamed Iran, which has emerged as a major hotspot with a death toll of 124, for "granting Saudi citizens entry to its territories without stamping their passports", according to the SPA.
This statement followed an announcement by the health ministry that Saudis tested positive after returning from the Islamic republic via Bahrain without disclosing their initial point of departure.
Saudi Arabia's unprecedented move to halt the umrah has left thousands of Muslim pilgrims in limbo, raising uncertainty over the annual hajj to Mecca scheduled for the end of July.
Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world in 2019 to take part in the hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, as Muslim obligations are known.
The event is a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites, making attendees vulnerable to contagion.
Already reeling from slumping oil prices, the Saudi kingdom risks losing billions of dollars annually from religious tourism as it tightens access to the sites.
Turkish pilgrim Hussameddine Ali, who arrived in the kingdom last week before the decision to halt the umrah, expressed disappointment that he was not allowed close to the Kaaba.
"I will probably return to Turkey," he told AFP.
"We are sitting in the hotel the whole time... what are we doing (here)?"