In Sudan, a blasphemous teddy bear

A newly arrived English teacher was charged Wednesday for allowing her primary-school class to name a teddy bear Mohammad.

The faded brick buildings of Unity High School, one of Khartoum's exclusive British seats of learning, must have seemed like a paradise to Gillian Gibbons as she arrived in Sudan.

After a career teaching in the rough schools of northern England she was embarking on a new phase, educating the children of Sudan's elite. But Wednesday, Ms. Gibbons was charged with inciting hatred, insulting religion, and showing contempt of religious beliefs – a crime punishable by up to 40 lashes.

At issue: she allowed her primary-school students to name a class teddy bear Mohammad – the name of Islam's holiest prophet, likenesses of whom are forbidden by the religion.

"A lot of people – in schools, in mosques – are saying they are angry and that she should not think the prophet is like an animal," said a taxi driver parked Wednesday in the dusty side street outside the police facility where she was being held. "Me, I think she was silly. Nothing more."

Gibbons has been in a Sudanese cell since police arrested her Sunday to question her about what colleagues insist was an inadvertent error.

Sitting in his study, surrounded by sepia-tinted photographs of the school's colonial heyday, Robert Boulos, Unity's director, says Gibbons had only arrived in the country in August.

"This was a completely innocent mistake," he says. "Miss Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam."

Part of a project on learning about animals

The bizarre saga that has put the former deputy head teacher under suspicion began back in September, says Mr. Boulos.

The class, like many in Britain, was asked to bring a teddy bear into school as part of a project on bears. A 7-year-old girl brought in a cuddly toy and it was dressed in old clothes.

Each weekend it would be sent home with a different pupil, who would update a diary on the bear's activities.

Problems arose with the naming of the bear. The issue was put to a vote and the 23 pupils overwhelmingly picked Mohammad – also the name of one of the class's most popular boys.

Boulos says no one had raised any objections until last week. Police arrived at the school on Sunday saying they wanted to arrest the English teacher, who lived on the premises.

"We tried to reason with them but we felt they were coming under strong pressure from Islamic courts," he adds. "There were men with big beards asking where she was and saying they wanted to kill her."

A similar crowd gathered at the police station where she is being held.

Unity is one of a number of British schools founded early last century on Christian lines in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, where women must cover their heads and the sale of alcohol is banned under sharia, or Islamic law.

The school's tree-shaded courtyard and dusty brickwork evoke the feeling of an English public school, mixed with the sweeping arches of Arab architecture.

The primary teacher was making the most of her new life. In e-mails to friends back home she had described camel rides and other aspects of living in Sudan.

Now she could be sentenced to six months in prison, a fine, or a public lashing under Sudan's blasphemy laws.

Other teachers said they feared Gibbons may have been caught up in an attempt by a disgruntled member of the staff to embarrass the school. Bishop Ezikiel Kondo, chairman of the school council, says: "It's a kind of blackmail."

A call for calm resolution

Parents arriving at the gates of the school to hear the latest news have been supportive of the imprisoned teacher.

"I didn't complain and neither did any of the other parents," said one Sudanese mother whose 7-year-old son had hosted the bear for a weekend. "Anyway, she didn't name the bear – it was the class. Really, we think she is a good teacher."

But there are fears the incident could spark anger. For now, staff say the school, which is temporarily closed out of fear of reprisals by Islamic extremists, won't reopen until January.

Khartoum saw ugly demonstrations during the international furor over cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper last year.

Up until Gibbons was charged Wednesday, reaction had been muted in the country's newspapers, raising hopes that a deal could be done quietly to allow the teacher to leave the country.

British officials expressed dismay at the news that she was charged. "We are surprised and disappointed by this development and the foreign secretary will summon as a matter of urgency the Sudanese ambassador to discuss this matter further," Prime Minister Gordon Brown's official spokesman said.

In addition, Foreign Office spokesman said Foreign Secretary David Miliband was summoning the Sudanese ambassador over the affair.

Everyone is hoping that the incident is not turned into a bigger clash of East against West. Some suggest it had nothing to do with Islam.

"People are angry because the bear doesn't exist in Sudanese folklore. It's not seen as a nice thing that children carry around," says Professor Eltyeb Hag Ateya, director of Khartoum University's Peace Research Institute. "If you call someone a bear they will be angry as if you have called someone a camel in England."

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