Saudi sitcom row tests tolerance toward Christians

RIYADH (Reuters) - A popular Saudi holiday sitcom has drawn the ire of conservative clerics over an episode portraying Arab Christians in a positive light after the kingdom sought to sell itself as a leader of dialogue between faiths.

“Tash Ma Tash,” which has aired during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan for 17 years, is no stranger to controversy and its episodes have grown bolder over the years, tackling issues from morals police and polygamy to the heavy influence of religion on education in the deeply conservative society.

U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is ruled by an absolute monarchy in coordination with clerics from the austere Wahhabi school of Islam, who oversee the judiciary and education and run a police service that enforces strict Islamic-behavior guidelines.

A two-part “Uncle Boutros” episode of the sitcom showed the two main Saudi characters, both Muslims, being advised by their dying father to visit the brother of their deceased Lebanese mother, about whom they know next to nothing.

After a tearful reunion, the pair discover their mother’s relatives were Christians and Uncle Boutros was a priest. Despite their initial shock, the brothers slowly come to respect their uncle’s Christianity, although they try to convert him to Islam and give him a Koran.

The duo are pleased when their uncle hands them a box of jewelry that had belonged to their mother and which he had held for them for years. They also respect their uncle’s charitable deeds toward a Lebanese Muslim neighbor.

But some Saudi clerics were not impressed.

“A Muslim is allowed to praise only the one true religion -- Islam,” said Eissa al-Ghaith, a judge at the Justice Ministry, in remarks carried by al-Madina newspaper on Sunday.

Independent Islamic scholar Abdulwahab al-Salhi said the “indecent lot of ‘Tash Ma Tash’ ... used drama to destroy Muslims’ stable religious principles by portraying Christians as believers and not apostates.”

On the program’s Internet forum, some participants were more sympathetic.

“I don’t see the harm in portraying a priest as being honest... You find many faiths in Arab countries. The Christian can be found next to the Muslim; the Shi’ite neighbors the Sunni,” said one participant, writing under the name Khayal al-Omr, responding to an angry comment.

“And what’s wrong with the characters? You used to find them funny ... and now that it talked about religions they became stupid and revolting,” she added.

The rulers of the world’s top oil exporting country have wrestled with whether to moderate Wahhabism since the September 11 attacks in 2001 on U.S. targets, carried out by mostly Saudi nationals, and the emergence of al Qaeda militancy against the Saudi government in 2003.

Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Michael Roddy