Decision to replace top Saudi cleric withdrawn

Sheikh Ghamdi called for allowing men & women to mix

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A decision to replace a senior Saudi religious police officer on Sunday has been retracted hours after reports that he was sacked following comments about easing the rules for prayer in mosques, and allowing men and women to mix freely.

An official report earlier said Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi was replaced as general manager for the Mecca branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in an announcement from the organisation's president, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Humain.

In the report, Humain gave no reason for the move, which included several other new appointments of senior officials of the religious police, popularly known as the muttawa.

Ghamdi was reportedly dressed down three days ago by the country's highest cleric for saying that Muslims are not necessarily required to pray inside a mosque with a group of other Muslims in daily prayers.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh told Ghamdi he was getting involved in matters of Islamic sharia law that were outside his authority, the Al-Madinah newspaper reported on Friday.

Al-Sheikh also said in his sermon during Friday prayers that anyone suggesting that congregation prayer is not necessary is "leading people to hell," according to reports.

Ghamdi's replacement followed his denial on Wednesday that he had already been sacked for statements advocating free mixing of unrelated men and women.

Ghamdi, who could not immediately be contacted, has said several times since December that there is nothing in scripture supporting the strict segregation enforced by Saudi Arabia's school of Sunni Islam.