Saudi Arabia is halting the entry of Muslim pilgrims seeking to worship at the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as the kingdom attempts to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The government was “suspending entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visiting the Prophet’s Mosque temporarily”, the foreign ministry said on Thursday. Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of year.

Some 8m Muslims perform it annually, with many preferring the holy month of Ramadan that starts this year in the last week of April.

While Saudi Arabia has in the past restricted pilgrims from some countries or regions with disease outbreaks, as in the case of Ebola in 2014, a worldwide ban appears to be unprecedented. It is unclear if the main Hajj pilgrimage, due to begin in July, will be affected by the latest restrictions.

The kingdom has not reported any confirmed cases of the coronavirus inside the country. But seven Saudi citizens who travelled to Iran were among the cases reported in neighbouring Kuwait and Bahrain, where dozens of infections have been confirmed.

The health ministry said it was co-ordinating with local authorities in these countries to treat the infected Saudi citizens there.

Saudi Arabia has also suspended tourist visa entry from countries where the virus is spreading, the foreign ministry added in its statement.

As part of its tourism and economic diversification strategy, the Saudi government plans to increase the number of umrah pilgrims to 30m a year by 2030.

The annual pilgrimage to Mecca is among the biggest single gatherings of humanity. A record number of more than 3m pilgrims made the journey in 2012, although numbers have declined since as the government issued fewer visas.

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