Saudi cleric criticises fatwas against writers

RIYADH, July 14 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's top Muslim cleric has taken a rare stance against radical colleagues who brand some writers as infidels, a charge that can be used to justify violence against them, media reported on Monday.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh said in a lecture last week that clerics should be careful before rushing to denounce writers as apostates from Islam, a practice known as takfeer and which al Qaeda uses to condemn many Muslim rulers.

Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, a highly revered independent cleric, said in March that two newspaper columnists should be put to death if they did not renounce their "heretical articles" in public. He was supported by 20 other clerics.

"(Takfeer) should come from knowledge, perception, understanding and awareness of the issue, and study," he said in the comments reported in al-Hayat newspaper.

"Perhaps someone wrote what he did out of ignorance or misinformation ... We should not rush to call people infidels, except if their articles are a result of invalid belief and bad intentions," he said.

The Mufti's statement came days before a Saudi-sponsored "interfaith dialogue" in Spain this week among Muslims and other faiths and philosophies.

The Saudi government is trying to shed an image -- reinforced by the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 on the United States -- of harbouring a xenophobic religious establishment that deems non-Muslims and many other Muslims as infidels and supports jihad, or holy war.

The Mufti -- the state's official spokesperson and advisor on religious matters -- is spearheading efforts to moderate Saudi Arabia's school of Islam, often termed Wahhabism. (Reporting by Andrew Hammond; editing by Sami Aboudi)