by Michael Ireland
March 27, 2002
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (ANS) — In a rare criticism of the kingdom's powerful religious police, Saudi media have accused the force of hampering efforts to rescue 15 girls who died inside a blazing school, Reuters news service reports.
According to a report from Reuters carried on CNN, Saudi media and families of the victims have been incensed over the deaths of the girls in the fire that gutted a school in the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Most of the girls were crushed to death in a stampede as they tried to flee the blaze.
CNN reported that the al-Eqtisadiah daily said firemen scuffled with members of the religious police, also known as "mutaween," after they tried to keep the girls inside the burning building because they did not wear head scarves and abayas (black robes) as required by the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam.
CNN said the English-language Saudi Gazette, in a front-page report, quoted witnesses as saying that members of the police, known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, had stopped men who tried to help the girls warning "it is a sinful to approach them."
One civil defense officer told al-Eqtisadiah he saw three members of the religious police "beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya," CNN reported.
"We told them that the situation was very critical and did not allow for such behaviour. But they shouted at us and refused to move away from the gates," the newspaper quoted the officer as saying in a report posted to CNN's website.
The father of one of the dead girls charged that the school watchman even refused to open the gate to let the girls out, the Saudi Gazette reported on CNN.
CNN reports the newspaper said: "Lives could have been saved had they not been stopped by members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice."
The feared mutaween roam the streets of the conservative kingdom wielding sticks to enforce dress codes and sex segregation and to ensure prayers are performed on time, said CNN.
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