RIYADH A prominent Saudi cleric has issued an edict calling for opponents of the kingdom's strict segregation of men and women to be put to death if they refuse to abandon their ideas.
Shaikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak said in a fatwa the mixing of genders at the workplace or in education "as advocated by modernisers" is prohibited because it allows "sight of what is forbidden, and forbidden talk between men and women".
"All of this leads to whatever ensues," he said in the text of the fatwa published on his website (albarrak.islamlight.net).
"Whoever allows this mixing ... allows forbidden things, and whoever allows them is an infidel and this means defection from Islam ... Either he retracts or he must be killed ... because he disavows and does not observe the Sharia," Barrak said.
"Anyone who accepts that his daughter, sister or wife works with men or attend mixed-gender schooling cares little about his honour and this is a type of pimping," Barrak said.
Barrak, believed to be 77, does not hold a government position but he is viewed by Islamists as the leading independent authority of Saudi Arabia's hardline version of Sunni Islam, often termed Wahhabism.
Western diplomats believe that King Abdullah's push for reforms is resisted by a mainly older generation of clerics who still control the religious establishment.
The monarch dismissed a cleric from a top council of religious scholars in October after he demanded that religious scholars vet the curriculum at a new flagship mixed-gender university.
The kingdom, a major U.S. ally, is ruled by the Al Saud family in alliance with clerics from the strict Wahhabi school of Islam who oversee mosques, the judiciary and vast parts of education, and run a religious police body.
The Saudi government pays a morals police squad that roams streets and shopping malls to make sure unrelated men and women are kept apart, that women are covered from head to toe and search for alcohol and drugs under the kingdom's austere interpretation of Islam.
In 2008, Barrak issued a fatwa that two Saudi writers should be tried for apostasy for their "heretical articles" and put to death if they did not repent after the two wrote articles that questioned the Sunni Muslim view in Saudi Arabia that Christians and Jews should be considered unbelievers.
He has also denounced Shi'ite Muslims as "infidels" in another edict that coincided with sectarian tensions in Iraq.
(Reporting by Souhail Karam; Editing by Dominic Evans)