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story.lead_photo.caption Saudi cleric Hammoud Al-Labban recites the call to prayers Sunday as worshippers wearing face masks and observing social distancing guidelines to protect against the new coronavirus, attend dawn prayers at al-Mirabi Mosque in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
(AP/Amr Nabil)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Tens of thousands of mosques across Saudi Arabia opened Sunday for the first time in more than two months, with worshippers 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 Saudi Arabia, also reopened for prayers after being 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 people 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, worshippers 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 about 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 6-foot distance between people during prayer, wearing masks at all times and abstaining from greeting one another with handshakes or hugs.

Children younger than 15 were not being allowed in 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, though full attendance will not be allowed until mid-June.

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 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.

Despite taking early and unprecedented measures to curb the spread of the virus, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 85,000 people contracting the virus, with more than 500 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, have begun to be eased.

Elsewhere on Sunday:

• Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, announced it would restrict movement within the sheikhdom for a week beginning Tuesday.

• In Pakistan, the government withdrew limits on congregations in mosques and churches, though the country has an acute bed shortage and near daily warnings from health professionals to tighten lockdown measures.

• 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 the year because of the coronavirus.

​​​​​Information for this article was contributed by Tia Goldenberg, Kathy Gannon and Bassem Mroue of The Associated Press.

A Section on 06/01/2020

Print Headline: Saudi, Jerusalem mosques reopen

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