Saudi cleric fired for advocating mixing of sexes

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — The head of Saudi Arabia's powerful religious police has fired the chief of the Mecca branch for advocating the mixing of the sexes, an official from the force said Tuesday.

Ahmed bin Qassim al-Ghamidi's suggestion in a newspaper interview this week that men and women should be left to mingle freely directly clashed with a central preoccupation of the force.

The religious police, under the control of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, are charged with enforcing Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam, which prohibits men and women who are not immediate relatives from mingling.

"Mixing (between the sexes) is just natural and there is no good reason to ban it," al-Ghamidi said in the interview.

He was dismissed soon after, according to an official from the force who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to journalists.

The remarks by such a senior member of the religious police, who is also a top cleric, revealed a surprising shifting of views on the gender segregation ban at the heart of the hard-line establishment tasked with enforcing the restriction.

Zealous officers routinely jail unrelated men and women found sitting together in coffee shops, restaurants or other public places.

The policemen also patrol public places to ensure women are covered and not wearing makeup, shops close five times a day for Muslim prayers and men go to the mosque and worship.

The force's new chief, Abdul-Aziz bin Humain, has been billed as a reformer and promised a new tone after being appointed by the king last year. But his dismissal of al-Ghamidi shows there are limits to how far he is willing to go.

King Abdullah has been encouraging change in the oil-rich kingdom since becoming crown prince in 1982, and has intensified his efforts since assuming the thrown upon the death of his half brother, King Fahad, in 2005.

Male and female students are permitted to study together at the newly opened King Abdullah Science and Technology University, launched by the Saudi monarch last year. Abdullah dismissed a prominent hard-line cleric who criticized the university's coed policy.