SAN'A, Yemen – SAN'A, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's most influential Islamic cleric vowed on Saturday to gather a "million" signatures to protest a draft law banning child brides, in an increasingly vocal showdown against the country's weak government which needs the support of powerful religious leaders to hold onto power.
The issue of child brides in Yemen has attracted broad international attention, most recently when a 13-year-old girl bled to death earlier this month after her 23-year-old husband allegedly tied her down and forced her to have sex with him.
The cleric, Sheik Adbul-Majid al-Zindani, said a ban on child brides "threatens our culture and society and spreads immorality." Al-Zindani is Yemen's most powerful Islamic scholar and believed by the U.S. to be a spiritual mentor of Osama Bin Laden.
Speaking at a conference at Iman University in the Yemeni capital San'a, al-Zindani called on the dozens of radical clerics and Islamic law students in the crowd to opposed the draft law.
"You have to gather a million signatures ... that supports the demands of clerics," said al-Zindani. "If the issue calls on us to gather a million protesters, we'll organize it," al-Zindani said.
Al-Zindani's calls against the ban have become increasingly strident ahead of an expected vote by Yemeni lawmakers next month on raising the marriage age to 17.
The practice of marrying young girls is widespread in Yemen, where a quarter of all females marry before they turn 15, according to a 2009 report by the country's Ministry of Social Affairs.
In the country's deeply tribal society, families prefer young brides because they are seen as more obedient and are expected to have more children. It is also difficult for poor families in impoverished Yemen to ignore bride-prices of hundreds of dollars.
A February 2009 law set the minimum age for marriage at 17, but it was repealed and sent back to parliament's constitutional committee for review after pressure from some lawmakers and clerics, led by al-Zindani, who called it un-Islamic.
In March, al-Zindani signed a religious decree that declared people who supported the ban on child brides to be apostates, a particularly severe charge in the deeply Muslim country.
Pressure from al-Zindani and other religious leaders have made the government reluctant to tackle the issue because they rely on their support to stay in power. A parliamentary committee was expected to make a final decision on the legislation this month, but that has now been delayed until May.
It is widely expected that the government will raise the marriage age to deflect international pressure, but will not enforce legislation. Impoverished Yemenis are widely expected to ignore the law.