Saudi Shiites called for the dismissal of Sheikh Adel Al-Kalbani, the first black imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and his trial for inciting hatred against their community.
During a live interview on the BBC Arabic Television last week, Sheikh Kalbani, who was appointed nine months ago as the Imam of the first shrine of Islam, called Shiite clerics "heretics" and insisted they were not entitled to join the Supreme Council of Ulema, the highest religious body in Saudi Arabia.
Shiite Clerics’ ire
These statements have angered religious Shiite dignitaries, writers and journalists, calling for his dismissal and trial. Some even urged the Saudi government "to officially apologise to Shiites."
Even the moderate Shiite leader, Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar, condemned these "takfiri sentiments" and asked Sheikh Kalbani to be present an "official apology" or be dismissed, while several other Shiite clerics simply called for his dismissal and trial.
Sheikh Abdel Karim Al-Habil accused Sheikh Kalbani of "religious terrorism" and demanded an official apology from the government, stressing that Sheikh Kalbani’s words were "a blow to all the initiatives of inter-religious dialogue" initiated by the King Abdullah.
Sheikh Hassan Al-Nimr Al-Saegh warned against "a possible implosion like what happened in some neighbouring countries or in many other Muslim countries,” with a particular reference to inter-community violence in Iraq.
Threats of prosecution before international tribunals
More recently, some 160 Shiite personalities, including religious and intellectuals, urged the government in a communique to enact a law criminalizing "any religious hatred" in the kingdom while they made it known that "Sheikh Kalbani’s statements should not go unpunished."
The Grand Mosque Imam has also been the target of criticism by many Shiite writers and journalists.
Mohamed Al-Shioukh offered Sunday Shiites a series of practical measures to combat "Takfiri fatwas", especially "the pressure on governments, including that of Riyadh, to compel them to enact anti-takfiri laws” and "lawsuits against takfirists before international tribunals."
The same day, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that two Shiite associations of "Ahl Al-Beit" in Cairo and Baghdad were about to "prosecute 22 Saudi clerics before international tribunals.
These clerics are accused of "war crimes against humanity, for having promulgated takfiri fatwas, responsible for killing thousands of innocent people, particularly in Iraq,” Mohammed Al-Drini, the President of the one of these associations, told the newspaper.
Embarrassment in Riyadh
The Saudi government has so far been silent about the outcry provoked by Sheikh Kalbani’s statements.
However, last Saturday, Prince Misha’al bin Abdulaziz, Chairman of Allegiance-Pledge Commission and also the King’s half-brother, reiterated that "all Saudis are Muslims." "No to racism, not sectarianism!" Prince Misha’al said in a statement to Okaz.
The next day, Turki Al-Sudeiri, the influential managing director of the pro-government Al-Riyadh newspaper, rejected Sheikh Kalbani, deploring the “shameful” Sunni-Shiite rifts.
"I am stunned by the statements of Sheikh Kalbani who damned Shiite clerics," Sudeiri said.
More explicitly, Sheikh Osama Khayat, the imam-preacher of the Grand Mosque, warned in his Friday sermon against "any behaviour harmful to the unity of Muslims and against any verbal excess.”
"I advise Muslims not to publish statements, make declarations or give interviews on various media, which may harm Muslims," Sheikh Osama said in his weekly sermon.
Sheikh Kalbani on the trail of Sheikh Luhaidan?
Last February, King Abdullah, firmly committed to interfaith dialogue, conducted a major government reshuffle, marked by the dismissal of Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, former head of the Supreme Judicial Council and member of the Supreme Council of Ulema, was the "old guard" of the religious establishment.
The government had been undermined by a fatwa issued last September by Sheikh Luhaidan, which sounded like a call to kill the owners of satellite TV stations which are "spreading depravity and lust."
That is why many internet surfers are wondering if Sheikh Kalbani will sooner or later know the same fate as Sheikh Luhaidan.
Translated and edited by Dr. Saad Guerraoui, a senior editor at Middle East Online
The article is also available in Arabic and French at