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Israel to shut down synagogues in latest step to fight virus

By The Associated Press
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JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli government on Wednesday approved new sweeping restrictions over the new coronavirus pandemic, including ordering the closing of all synagogues amid increased infections in places of worship, just as Libya became the latest at-risk Mideast nation to report its first case.

The announcement by Libya's U.N.-backed government now leaves just war-torn Yemen as the last country in the Mideast not to have a reported case of the new virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes. Already, health officials have warned of the danger of the virus' spread in the Arab world's poorest country, where the health care system has collapsed amid yearslong war.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Israel and the Palestinian territories are home to some of the holiest sites in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Places of worship largely had been kept open so long as gatherings have not had more than 10 people at a time who maintained a 2-meter (yard) distance from each other.

Many in Israel's insular ultra-Orthodox communities, however, have defied restrictions and gathered as usual for prayer and study, despite the pleas of rabbis and local authorities. That has led to tension with authorities and in at least one case, scuffles with police. Municipal workers also have been urging the ultra-Orthodox to go home, with little effect.

The order to close the synagogues, which goes into effect later Wednesday, reportedly came over the objection of Israel's health minister, himself an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

The new restrictions in Israel will bar all besides personnel deemed essential from venturing more that 100 meters (yards) from their homes. In a recent surge, more than 2,000 Israelis have been infected, with 37 in serious condition. Five elderly Israelis with pre-existing medical conditions have died.

Meanwhile, one of Israel's chief rabbis called for a half-day fast on Wednesday to pray for the country's recovery from the coronavirus. He also criticized other rabbis who suggested that observant Jews could use video chat software on Passover to connect with other families for the traditional Seder, despite government orders for people to remain in their homes.

In Libya, officials say a 73-year-old man who crossed into the country from neighboring Tunisia on March 5 became the large North African country's first recorded case. The Libyan patient had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia, according to the National Center for Disease Control, and was receiving medical treatment for his fever and cough in isolation at a Tripoli hospital.

The confirmation of Libya's first case, three weeks after the patient's arrival in the country, poses a test for its fragile medical system.

Attempts at a nationwide disease protection program have been undermined by the country's division between two rival governments, in the east and west of the country, and a patchwork of armed groups supporting either administration. Even on Tuesday, Tripoli's suburbs came under heavy fire as the United Nations appealed for a freeze in fighting so authorities could focus on preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile in Egypt, Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly told reporters that the 11-hour nationwide curfew from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. would go into effect Wednesday, during which public transportation would also come to a halt. Egypt has confirmed 402 cases and 22 fatalities, including two senior military officers.

Pakistan on Wednesday halted all domestic passenger flights to stop the spread of the new coronavirus after reporting nearly 1,000 cases in the country, just as Libya became the latest at-risk Mideast nation to report its first infection.

In Pakistan, the domestic flight ban will begin on Thursday, civil aviation spokesman Abdul Sattar Khokhar said. Islamabad previously cut train service and international flights.

Initially, most of those infected were Pakistani pilgrims returning from neighboring hard-hit Iran, which has seen the Mideast's worst outbreak of the virus. Now, however, the virus is being reported in people who had no travel history, officials say.

Authorities in Iran reported another 122 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the total number of the country's fatalities to more than 1,900 amid more than 24,800 confirmed cases. There are some 33,000 confirmed cases overall in the region.

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Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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