11/15/2005, 00.00
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Saudi teacher accused of "mocking" Islam

The man, condemned to 40 months and 750 lashes, had discussed the Bible in class, spoken well of Jews and condemned fundamentalism. Islamic extremists used students who had failed an exam to get at the "moderate" professor.

Ryadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A court in Saudi Arabia has condemned a teacher to 40 months in prison and 750 lashes in 15 weeks for having "mocked Islam". The teacher, denounced by colleagues and students a year and half ago, had discussed the Bible in class and spoken highly of Jews. The victim said the charges were made against him by fundamentalist colleagues who were against his moderate positions.

The sentence, handed down on 12 November, was published the following day by a Saudi daily. Al-Madina reported that the crime of the chemistry teacher, Mohammad Al-Harbi, was that he had promoted a "dubious ideology and declared that Jews are in the right". The teacher is also charged with having "discussed the Gospel and not allowing students to leave class to wash before prayer". At the time, the man was teaching in the Al-Fwailiq high school in the town of Ein Al-Juwa.

Interviewed by the Arab press, Al-Harbi described the sentence as "cruel". He said the students who levelled charges against him were angry because they had not passed a monthly chemistry test. "They asked me if they could repeat it and I refused." The teacher said the students had been manipulated into taking legal action by some teachers of Islamic studies, who did not look well upon Al-Harbi's views. The latter had often said he was against terrorism and fundamentalism, trying to sensitize youth in the school.

Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, the teacher's lawyer, said the verdict was "illegal": any case regarding "a sacrilege must be tried by a special religious tribunal and not by a regular court. Besides, the defence did not have the right to hear any witnesses. We will file an appeal as stipulated within 10 days."

The Education Ministry removed Al-Harbi from his teaching post and transferred him to the Education Office of the Ein Al-Juwa council. When the teacher asked for the reason behind the action, he was unable to receive any clear answers.

In Saudi Arabia, freedom of worship is prohibited to all religions except Wahhabi Islam. Any public manifestation (like having a Bible or wearing a cross) is banned. According to the latest annual report compiled by the US State Department on international religious freedom, "freedom of worship does not exist" in Saudi Arabia. This is the second year running that the nation has been listed as a country "of particular concern" (CPC) by Washington; the acronym is used to denote a situation where grave violations of freedom of worship may lead to sanctions.

The same dossier of the US State Department for 2003 denounced the use of "discriminatory and offensive language" in Saudi Arabia against Jews, Christians and non-Wahhabi Muslims in text books of state schools, during Friday prayer in mosques and in government-controlled media.

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See also
Police razes clandestine Hindu temple in Riyadh, deports three people
Brian O'Connor: "My story, a Christian in a Saudi jail"
Christians arrested and persecuted in Saudi Arabia
The 'Save O'Connor' campaign, an example of Internet solidarity
India's Christians elated by O'Connor's release


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