KHARTOUM, Sudan – A 7-year-old Sudanese boy is defending the British teacher accused of insulting Islam by naming a teddy bear Muhammad, Reuters reported.
The boy said Gilliam Gibbons, 54, asked him, as part of a school assignment, what he wanted to call the stuffed animal and he said, 'Muhammad,' after his name, Reuters reported.
Sudanese authorities on Tuesday questioned Gibbons who could face charges of insulting religion — a crime punishable by up to 40 lashes, six months in prison or a fine.
Gibbons, of the private Unity High School in Khartoum, was arrested Sunday after one of her pupils' parents complained, accusing her of naming the bear after Islam's chief prophet. Muhammad is a common name among Muslim men, but connecting the prophet's name to an animal could be seen as insulting by many Muslims.
Several Sudanese newspapers Tuesday ran a statement reportedly from Unity High School saying that Gibbons had been "removed from work at the school" and apologizing for any offense, though it said the incident was a "misunderstanding."
The boy said when he suggested they name the bear Muhammad, he wasn't thinking of Islam's Prophet, Reuters reported.
He also said most of the class agreed with him on the name, Reuters reported.
In the first official comment on the case, Sudanese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday downplayed its significance, describing it as isolated but also condemning it.
Ministry spokesman, Ali al-Sadeq, said the case of a "teacher's misconduct against the Islamic faith" should not have provoked a British government caution warning to its citizens in Sudan.
Al-Sadeq said this was particularly so after the school had apologized to the parents, pupils and to the Sudanese in general for the teacher's "unacceptable conduct."
The statement in the newspapers was not officially confirmed by the school, however.
A person reached by phone at the school who identified herself as an administrator, said the statement was correct but would not confirm details in it. She refused to give her name, citing the sensitivity of the situation. She said the school has closed for at least the next week until the controversy eases.
The Unity High School, a private English-language school with elementary to high school levels, was founded by Christian groups but 90 percent of its students are Muslim, mostly from upper-class Sudanese families.
The school's director, Robert Boulos, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the incident was "a completely innocent mistake. Miss Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam."
Gibbons was teaching her pupils, who are around 7 years old, about animals and asked one of them to bring in her teddy bear, Boulos said. She asked the students to pick names for it and they proposed Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad, and in the end the pupils voted to name it Muhammad, he said.
Each child was allowed to take the bear home on weekends and write a diary about what they did with it. The diary entries were collected in a book with the bear's picture on the cover, labeled, "My Name is Muhammad," though the bear itself was never labeled with the name, he said.
A former colleague of Gibbons, Jill Langworthy, told The Associated Press the lesson is a common one in Britain. "She's a wonderful and inspirational teacher, and if she offended or insulted anybody she'd be dreadfully sorry," Langworthy, who taught with Gibbons in Liverpool, said.
The case brought widespread calls in Britain for her release. The Muslim Council of Britain calls upon the Sudanese government to intervene in the case.
"This is a very unfortunate incident and Ms Gibbons should never have been arrested in the first place. It is obvious that no malice was intended," said Muhammad Abdul Bari, the council's secretary-general.
British opposition Conservative party lawmaker William Hague called on the British government to "make it clear to the Sudanese authorities that she should be released immediately."
"To condemn Gillian Gibbons to such brutal and barbaric punishment for what appears to be an innocent mistake is clearly unacceptable," he said.
Omar Daair, spokesman for the British Embassy in Sudan, said embassy officials were in touch with Sudanese authorities and had met with Gibbons. He said he expected authorities to decide whether to bring her to court, and on what charges, within a few days. "Her lawyer is trying to get her released on bail in the meanwhile," he said.
Gibbons was being questioned on suspicion of abuse of religion — a charge that is punishable by up to six months in prison, a fine or flogging of up to 40 lashes under Sudan's Islamic law-based legal system.
The case recalled the outrage that was sparked in the Islamic world when European newspapers ran cartoons deriding the Prophet Muhammad in recent years, prompting protests in many Muslim countries. The Prophet Muhammad is highly revered by Muslims, and most interpretations of the religion bar even favorable depiction of him, for fear of encouraging idolatry or misrepresenting him.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir earlier this month suggested he would ban Denmark, Sweden and Norway — where newspapers ran the cartoons — from contributing engineering personnel to a planned U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur.
But Sudanese authorities appeared so far to be playing down the incident of the British teacher. Her case has not been mentioned in state media.
The reported statement from the school said the administration "offers an official apology to the students and their families and all Muslims for what came from an individual initiative." It said Gibbons had been "removed from her work at the school."
The statement underlined the school's "deep respect for the heavenly religions" and for the "beliefs of Muslims and their rituals." It added that "the misunderstanding that has been raised over this issue leads to divisions that are disadvantageous to the reputation of the tolerant Sudanese people.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.