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Last Updated: Friday, 30 May, 2003, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
Hundreds of Saudi clerics 'dismissed'
By the BBC's Magdi Abdelhadi

A Saudi police officer guards a bomb scene in Riyadh, 15 May 2003
The triple suicide bombing left at least 34 dead

The Saudi Government has played down media reports that it has embarked on a campaign to reform preaching at mosques following suicide attacks on Western targets in the kingdom earlier this month.

A senior government official told the BBC that a decision to withdraw the licences of hundreds of clerics was part of an ongoing process to evaluate services to the public and had nothing to do with the attacks that left more than 30 people dead.

Saudi Arabia has come under increasing pressure to dismantle the ideological infrastructure of militant Islam since 11 September 2001 attacks on Washington and New York.

The Saudi authorities were accused of turning a blind eye to preachers who encourage hatred of the West and other religions.

Some critics went even further than that.

They pointed out that the Islamic establishment in Saudi Arabia espouses a doctrine, known as Wahhabi Islam, that is not fundamentally different from the ideas embraced by Osama Bin Laden and his followers.

Move 'unrelated'

Recent reports in the Arab press said more than 1,700 clerics in Saudi Arabia had been relieved of their duties or were being retrained.

Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Ammar, deputy minister in charge of preachers at the ministry of Islamic affairs, told the BBC that the move was not related to the suicide attacks earlier this month in Riyadh.

Osama Bin Laden
Critics say Wahhabi Islam is similar to al-Qaeda doctrines

Sheikh al-Ammar said it was part of an ongoing process of evaluating services to the public and that it involved only a few hundred clerics.

Saudi Arabia has never accepted that there is a link between Islamic extremism and Wahhabi Islam, a strict interpretation of Islamic tradition that preaches rigorous segregation of the sexes and the rejection of other Muslim sects as a form of heresy.

The Saudi state is founded on the 18th-century alliance between the founders of the Wahhabi movement and the House of Saud, the family that has ruled Saudi Arabia since its creation in the 1930s.

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