Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah removed a top cleric in the wake of controversy over his statements opposing gender mixing at the first co-ed university in the Kingdom, the state news agency SPA said on Sunday.
Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shithri was first reported to have resigned from the board of the Council of Senior Clerics.
His resignation from the senior ulema came just days after he appeared on the Qatar-based al-Majd satellite channel and lashed out at the newly-opened flagship King Abdullah Science and Technology University for offering co-education.
Shithri was one of several clerics who objected to the mixed gender university, which is outside the purview of the conservative cleric-dominated education ministry.
Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who has promoted reforms since taking office in 2005, accepted Shithri's resignation.
The senior cleric said religious scholars should vet the curriculum to prevent alien ideologies such as "evolution" and set up a committee to ensure it does not violate sharia, or Islamic law.
"We are looking at some of the sciences that have included some irregular and alien ideologies, like evolution and such other ideologies," the daily al-Watan newspaper quoted Shithri as saying last week in response to a viewer’s question.
He later withdraw his statements and stressed the importance of the university in the progress of education. He also accused journalists of taking his statements out of context.
Al-Majd TV sought to distance itself from the channel, saying it is not responsible for Shithri’s statements. Executive director Ahmed Saqr stressed that the comments reflected the sheikh’s personal opinion.
Shithri’s statements sparked outrage among Saudi liberals and columnists, who have been supportive of the university and liberalizing education and accused both the Shethri and the station of overlooking the significant educational role of the university and of focusing on minor issues that are likely to spread controversy.
“Amidst the Kingdom’s celebrations marking the opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) there were some calls which bore the dust of Tora Bora and belittled this gigantic national accomplishment by raising the issue of co-education,” Khalaf Al-Harbi wrote in the Arabic daily Okaz.
A columnist for the London-based Asharq al-Awsat described the singular focus on co-education as “the chronic state of obsession with virtue creeping in once again.”
"This is a strategy for the conservatives to control the university or at least have a major say in it. This is the old trick for them to have the upper hand to sabotage reform," said Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of al-Watan.
King Abdullah's University of Science and Technology (KAUST), designed to produce Saudi scientists, is the only educational institution in the kingdom where men and women can mix. It is located near a Red Sea village away from the clutches of religious police.
It has attracted top scientists from around the world with research potential unmatched in many advanced countries and one of the largest endowments in the world.