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Saudi moral police chief eases tone on cinema

Says some movies possibly OK

The chief of Saudi Arabia's powerful religious police said some movies may be acceptable in the kingdom, despite a three-decade ban on cinemas, local press reported on Sunday.

Sheikh Ibrahim al-Gaith, head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, made the concession after last week's breakthrough public showings in Jeddah of the comedy feature "Manahi".

The move, which showed efforts to relax tough religious laws, faces tough opposition.

Ghaith, the kingdom's second-most influential cleric, changed his tone in favor of the movie going revival.

"We are not against having cinema if it shows the good and does not violate Islamic law," al-Hayat newspaper quoted him as saying on Sunday.

A change in approach

It was unclear why Ghaith had apparently changed his approach and the religious police were not available for comment.

Gaith pulled back from comments he made two days earlier branding movies "an absolute evil" in the wake of screenings in the Red Sea port city.

"I did not say that we reject all cinema, but I said that we were not consulted during the organization of these movie showings," he explained.

Over the past period from December 9, the Rotana entertainment group, controlled by Saudi tycoon Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, showed "Manahi" to rapturous audiences in Jeddah and nearby Taif.

The screenings, approved by the provincial governor, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, sparked hopes that Saudi Arabia would soon allow public cinemas.

Before the first projection of the film, local religious police inspected the facility, a 1,200 seat conference hall, to make sure that men and women would remain separated, adhering to the country's strict laws on separation of unrelated members of the opposite sex.

No cinema

The film has attracted such large crowds that the film was shown eight times a day over a 10-day period, the organizers said. It had to be stopped in Taif due to overcrowding in the hall, Rotana spokesman Ibrahim Badi said.

The kingdom's Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Shaikh did not comment on the issue.

Ghaith's religious police have legal power to search for alcohol, drugs and prostitution, ensure shops are closed during prayer and maintain a strict system of sexual segregation in Saudi society, where women are even banned from driving.

There are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia, but some coffee shops surreptitiously put on movies for customers and many Saudis enjoy films at home on DVD and satellite television.

To experience the world of cinema, they have to travel to nearby Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates or other countries.