Lahore - Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended visas for pilgrims wishing to visit Makkah over coronavirus fears, the Foreign Ministry said.

Pakistan also on Thursday decided to suspend flights to and from Iran at midnight in light of the swelling number of coronavirus cases in the neighbouring country.

The government is “suspending entry to the Kingdom for the purpose of Umrah and visiting the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) Mosque temporarily”, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, referring to the Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah that can be undertaken at any time of year.

Umrah attracts tens of thousands of devout Muslims from all over the globe each month. The Foreign Ministry said that it was also suspending visas for tourists visiting from countries where the new virus is a “danger”.

Even as the number of fresh cases declines at the epicentre of the disease in China, there has been a sudden increase in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Iran has emerged as a major hotspot in the region, where 15 people have succumbed to the disease -- officially known as COVID-19.

Kuwait and Bahrain also announced additional cases this week. Malaysians are advised to postpone their trips to Saudi Arabia after the Kingdom decided to temporarily stop accepting travellers for Umrah pilgrimage and tourism over Covid-19 fears.

Reportedly, Saudi Arabia was temporarily suspending entry into the country for Umrah pilgrimage and visits to the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Madina as part of measures to prevent Covid-19 from spreading in the Kingdom.

Entry with a tourist visa from countries with confirmed Covid-19 cases according to criteria established by the Saudi Arabian health authorities had also been temporarily suspended, it said.

Earlier on Thursday it was reported that Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry had announced the country’s temporary suspension of entry for the purposes of Umrah, tours to the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) Mosque and also tourism.

It was reported that last year, over seven million people performed the Umrah pilgrimage in Makkah. Umrah is an optional rite that can be undertaken at any point during the year, unlike the Haj pilgrimage which can only be done on specific dates.

Meanwhile, Pakistan on Thursday suspended direct flights from and to Iran that would be effective from ‘midnight between February 27 & 28’ for an indefinite period. “The Aviation Division has decided to cease all direct flights between Pakistan and Iran with effect from midnight between February 27 and 28, 2020 till further notice,” an official of the Aviation Division said in a statement released Thursday.

The government has decided to continue flights to and from Saudi Arabia for passengers holding iqama or permanent Saudi nationalities. However, people wishing to visit Saudi Arabia for Umrah or tourism will not be allowed on the flights. The decision was taken in light of the Saudi Arabian government’s directions, official said.

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) also tweeted about these measures and said that while the national carrier will continue flight operations as usual, people with Umrah or tourist visas will not be able to go to Saudi Arabia as “PIA will fully implement instructions given by the Saudi Arabian government”

Following the temporary ban on Umrah pilgrims by Saudi Arabia, several pilgrims were offloaded by Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and other private airlines. The passengers were offloaded by from the flights at various airports of the country. A Jeddah-bound flight of the PIA, PK-747 carrying 133 Umrah pilgrims was stopped from take-off from the Karachi airport. Notices have been placed at the various airports in this context.

People in large number are currently present the various airports after being offloaded by the airlines. Earlier on Thursday, the KSA placed a temporary ban on Umrah pilgrims in the wake of spread of the coronavirus.

It is one of a number of precautionary restrictions announced by KSA as health authorities in the Kingdom closely monitor the spread of the virus. Tourist-visa holders from countries judged to pose a particularly high risk of spreading the virus will also be denied entry.

Health authorities at entry points will verify which countries travelers visited before arriving in Saudi Arabia and apply all necessary precautionary measures. NNI

Also, a flight coming from Oman was disembarked at the runway at Jinnah International Airport. The passengers were checked for the virus on the runway before they made their way to immigration and out of the airport. The CAA source further said that the decision to disembark flights and check patients at the runway was taken at a meeting at the Chief Minister House on Thursday morning.