A British primary school teacher arrested in Sudan faces up to 40 lashes for blasphemy after letting her class of 7-year-olds name a teddy bear Muhammad.
Gillian Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, was arrested at at Khartoum's Unity High School yesterday, and accused of insulting the Prophet of Islam.
Her colleagues said that they feared for her safety after reports that groups of young men had gathered outside the Khartoum police station where she was taken and were shouting death threats.
The Unity school is a Christian-run but multi-racial and co-educational private school that is popular with Sudanese professionals and expatriate workers.
Bishop Ezekiel Kondo, chairman of the school council, told The Times that the school was in dispute with authorities over taxes, and suggested that Gibbons, who arrived in Khartoum in August, may have been caught up in that.
"The thing may be very simple but there are people who are trying to make it bigger. It's a kind of blackmail," he said.
Teachers at the school, in central Khartoum, a mile from the Nile River, said that Gibbons had made an innocent mistake by letting her pupils choose their favorite name for the toy as part of a school project.
Robert Boulos, the Unity director, said Gibbons was following a British National Curriculum course designed to teach young pupils about animals and their habitats. This year’s animal was the bear.
In September, she asked a girl to bring in her teddy bear to help the class focus and then asked the children to name the toy.
“They came up with eight names including Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad. Then she explained what it meant to vote and asked them to choose the name,” Boulos said.
Twenty out of the 23 children chose Muhammad. Each child was allowed to take the bear home for weekends and asked to keep a diary about what they did with the toy. Each entry was collected in a book with a picture of the bear on the cover, next to the message "My name is Muhammad."
Boulos said that the bear itself was not marked or labeled with the name in any way, adding that Sudanese police had now seized the book and asked to interview the 7-year-old girl who brought in the bear.
He said that he had decided to close down the school until January for fear of reprisals in Sudan’s predominantly Muslim capital.
“This is a very sensitive issue. We are very worried about her safety,” he said. “This was a completely innocent mistake. Ms. Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam.”
The British Embassy in Khartoum said that it was still unclear whether Gibbons had been charged formally. “We are following it up with the authorities and trying to meet her in person,” it said.
Under Sudan's Sharia law, blasphemy could attract a large fine, 40 lashes or a jail term of up to six months.