World News

Saudi fires cleric who criticised mixed university

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has removed a top cleric who demanded that religious scholars should vet the curriculum at a new flagship mixed-gender university, the state news agency SPA said on Sunday.

The kingdom, a major U.S. ally, is ruled by the Al Saud family in alliance with clerics from the strict Wahhabi school of Islam who oversee mosques, the judiciary and vast parts of education, and run a religious police body.

In a rare move, the king relieved Sheikh Saad al-Shithri of his duties as a member of a top council of religious scholars, citing a royal decree.

The agency gave no reason, but the decision came after Sheikh Saad had said scholars should vet the curriculum at the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) to prevent alien ideologies such as ‘evolution’.

“The recommendation is to set up Sharia committees at this university to oversee these studies and look into what violates the Sharia (Islamic law),” Sheikh Saad was quoted by al-Watan newspaper as saying last week.

He also objected to mixed education at the university, which was inaugurated last month. KAUST is outside the reach of the Education Ministry, which is dominated by clerics who oppose the scaling-back of religious content from the curriculum.

It has attracted top scientists from several parts of the world, with research potential unmatched in many advanced countries, as well as almost unlimited funds.

The university is a key project of King Abdullah, who has promoted reforms since taking office in 2005. The government has promised academic freedom for KAUST, but diplomats say clerics are likely to try to obstruct the project.

Reporting by Ulf Laessing, Editing by Mark Trevelyan