Saudi Arabia’s religious police stopped 15 schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to Saudi newspapers. The Saudi media has accused the kingdom?s powerful ?mutaween? police of hindering attempts to save the girls, who died in a fire inside a school in Mecca.

About 800 pupils were inside the school when the fire started. According to the al-Eqtisadiah daily, firemen confronted police after they tried to keep the girls inside because they were not wearing the headscarves and abayas (black robes) required by the kingdom?s strict interpretation of Islam.

One witness says he saw three policemen from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ?beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya.? Witnesses say the police stopped men who tried to help the girls and warned ?it is sinful to approach them.? More than 50 girls were injured in the incident, most of them crushed in a stampede as they tried to flee the blaze.

The father of one of the dead girls said that the school watchman even refused to open the gates to let the girls out.The school was locked at the time of the fire, which is the usual practice in order to segregate the sexes. The girls would have been able to remove their head-to-toe black robes when they were inside their classrooms, since there would be no women present to see them.

The religious police are widely feared in Saudi Arabia. They roam the streets enforcing dress codes and sex segregation, and making sure that prayers are performed on time. Anyone who refuses to obey them orders can be beaten and put in jail. To learn more,click here.

Saudi Arabia’s interior minister Prince Nayef has denied reports that religious police blocked the rescue of girls trapped in the school fire last week. Prince Nayef says two members of the police force had gone to the scene of the fire to ?ensure that the girls were not subjected to any kind of mistreatment outside the building? and ?they ?did not interfere in any other matter.?

The incident has caused an unprecedented outcry in Saudi Arabia, where public criticism of the religious police is rare. The head of Mecca?s regular police force, Mohammed al-Harthy, insists that when he arrived at the fire he found a member of the religious police ?trying to interfere,? and says, ?He was fighting with a police officer, trying to prevent him from entering the school.?

To learn more, read Whitley’s journal, “Religious Fanatics and the Ruin of the World,”click here.

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