Saudi cleric to sue Guardian newspaper

A prominent Saudi cleric intends to sue the British mass circulation Guardian newspaper over an article involving an interview with him that he is spearheading a campaign against reforms by King Abdullah.

Sheikh Saad Bin Naser al-Shethri, who was fired by King Abdullah from the Gulf country’s high council of scholars last year, said the article written by the Guardian’s reporter Jason Burke on Friday is incorrect on the grounds that he did not refer during the interview to the Monarch’s reform programmes.

“This article and the statements attributed to me contain lies and errors…I would like to say that the comments attributed by that reporter to me are mere lies because I have not said them,” he said, quoted by Saudi newspapers.

“For this reason, I will file a court case against the Guardian and that reporter because of this serious offence, falsification and lying…thanks God, I have the tape which includes my interview with that reporter and my sermon.”

Shethri, 46, said Burke came to Saudi Arabia this week and asked him if he can attend his sermon at a mosque in Riyadh.

” He then requested an interview with me and all what I said in the interview and the sermon was recorded…what he said about King Abdullah’s reforms was never mentioned in the interview or the sermon,” he said.

Following are excerpts of Burke’s article in the Guardian on Friday:

“On a Friday at one o'clock, Sheikh Saad Bin Naser al-Shethri is leading prayers in a small mosque in an upmarket neighbourhood of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. The faithful fill two floors, listening to the cleric's sermon on the true sense of the traditional greeting "salaam aleikum" – peace be upon you. This, Shethri says, means love thy neighbour.

It is a moderate message from a man who even in fiercely conservative Saudi Arabia, home to the most rigorous strands of Muslim practice in the world, is considered a hardliner. Only 18 months ago, Shethri, 46, was fired from the country's high council of religious scholars by King Abdullah, who has ruled the kingdom since 2005.

His offence was to have criticised the king's decision to allow male and female researchers to work together at the new multibillion pound science university built on the Red Sea coast. The king had called the university, a key part of Saudi Arabia's drive towards economic modernisation, a "beacon of tolerance". Shethri retorted that "mixing [genders] is a great sin and a great evil ... When men mix with women, their hearts burn and they will be diverted from their main goal [of] education."

Shethri remains unrepentant. In an interview with the Guardian, his first with a western newspaper, he says the duty of religious scholars is to advise sovereign rulers but also "to make governors fear God if they err from the right path and to remind them of God's punishment if they continue to err".

In an implicit criticism of the hugely wealthy royal family, Shethri said the Qur'an teaches money should not be admired nor should the rich be envied. The poorer you are, he said, "the less you will have to account for in this life and the next".

"Relations between the royal family and the clergy are very good," says Turki al-Sudeiri, editor of the loyalist al'Riyadh newspaper.