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Saudi religious police crack down on summer festivals
JEDDAH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's religious police is cracking down on summer festivals that the government hopes will promote domestic tourism, in the latest battle between liberals and conservatives in the world's biggest oil exporter.
The Saudi government is trying to promote internal tourism but restrictions on singing, dancing and mixing of unrelated men and women by the powerful religious establishment has complicated the effort.
Conservative clerics backed by some powerful members of the Saudi royal family oppose efforts to liberalise the country of 25 million, where women are also forbidden from driving.
"These acts contradict the faith and must not be done, taught, spread or encouraged," religious police spokesman Abdullah al-Mashiti told al-Watan daily this week, referring to circus acts such as fire-eating and lying on beds of glass that he believes is a form of magic outlawed by Islamic Sharia law.
"They must be fought and those performing them must be reported and punished so as to be deterred and their evil restricted," he said.
The religious police is one of the key instruments of clerical control in society, with powers to enforce gender segregation in most government and commercial buildings and search for drugs, alcohol or other items seen as immoral.
Jeddah's summer film festival was cancelled this year despite the support of local governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal. King Abdullah, who ascended the throne in 2005, is seen as backing the reformers but he must balance the opposing forces.
"Unfortunately such actions carried on by religious police do not adhere to the official political will and they sabotage the government efforts to improve and maintain the internal tourism industry," said Mahmoud Sabbagh, a newspaper columnist.
This month music concerts were also banned from the Abha tourism festival, in the mountainous southwest of the kingdom.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's entertainment firm Rotana managed to stage screenings of a Saudi comedy movie last December, but religious police disrupted shows in Riyadh.
"There are no activities here, and when they do have activities they are not accessible to women," said Samar Edrees, who travels abroad regularly to escape the restrictions.
"Here they have festivals that only target children and men, there is nothing for us to do and there are no cinemas."
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