04/27/2010, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Head of the religious police in Mecca, men and women can pray together

Ahmed al-Ghamdi says that the strict separation between the sexes that exists today did not exist at the time of Muhammad. Conservatives respond harshly: a fatwa says that he "must be killed." The official Saudi news agency reports his removal and a few hours later deletes the story. The issue also has economic implications.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) - The Saudi official news agency, SPA, had reported his dismissal only to delete all reports a few hours later, a fatwa says "he should be killed," the Grand Mufti has denied his authority to speak about Islamic law. He, Ahmed al Ghamdi (pictured), head of the religious police in Mecca, the first holy city of Islam, confirms his convictions: men and women can pray together and meet freely, even if only in public.

The episode has been strictly censored by Saudi Arabia, monitored by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the official name of the muttawa, the religious police. Of which Ghamdi is a senior official.

The question of the possibility of men and women “mixing” - in public, never in private - has for weeks been at the centre of a debate between scholars and politicians. Thus, the Saudi newspaper The National, has devoted a long article to the story, recalling the words of the Justice Minister Muhammad al Issa who warned against confusing public promiscuity, which he believes is allowed by Islam, with meetings in private between men and women who are neither married nor related by kinship, which is prohibited.

The problem is not merely one of religious tradition, it also has economic implications. The ban has in fact heavy negative influences on women's employment and foreign investment since it requires gender division even in the offices of international companies.

So, since December, when Ghamdi first spoke out on the issue, the question has occupied newspapers and television programs. A debate which is due to the climate of moderate reforms that King Abdullah is introducing into the country in an attempt to modernize it.

But the reaction of conservatives has been very hard. If Ghamdhi argues that the division did not exist at the time of Mohammed his opposers cry of violations of Sharia and apostasy. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Barrak has issued a fatwa which says that promiscuity "as supported by modernists" is prohibited because it allows "the sight of what is forbidden and prohibited conversations between men and women." Anyone who facilitates such promiscuity is an infidel", and if not retracted "should be killed".  And finally, anyone who allows his daughter, sister or wife to work with men or to attend a mixed school is guilty of "a kind of prostitution".

On Sunday, the case seemed closed. The Commission's website published a statement from its Chairman Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Humain according to which Ghamdhi had been replaced. The statement was picked up and reported by SPA.  Soon after, however, the agency wrote that the news was to be "deleted and not used".

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