RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) - In an apparent bid to reform the religious establishment, Saudi King Abdullah on Saturday dismissed the head of the feared religious police and a hard-line cleric who issued an edict last year saying it was permissible to kill owners of satellite TV stations that show "immoral" content.
Abdullah also appointed the first female deputy Cabinet minister, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. The changes were part of a surprise reshuffle in the Cabinet, the judiciary and the military.
The dismissals were seen as an attempt by the king to reform the religious establishment, which has come under persistent criticism especially because of the performance of the religious police and the judiciary.
The shake-up, the first major one since Abdullah came to power in August 2005, is significant because it dilutes the influence the hard-liners have had for decades on the religious establishment. The king, who has repeatedly spoken about the need for reform, has brought in a new group of officials and scholars who are younger and more in tune with the diversity of cultural Islam than their predecessors.
"They bring not only new blood, but also new ideas," said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Al-Watan newspaper. "They are more moderate and many
are also close to the reform agenda of the king, having worked closely with him."
"The people now in charge are not being ordered to implement reform," he added. "They believe in reform."
The Saudi Press Agency said Abdullah has ordered the re-establishment of the Grand Ulama Commission - a religious scholars body - with 21 members from all branches of Sunni Islam. This is a major shift for the kingdom because it will give more moderate Sunni schools representation in a body that has always been governed by the strict Hanbali sect. No minority Shiites, however, have been appointed to the commission.
Abdul-Aziz bin Humain will replace Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith as head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which runs the religious police, according to the agency.
Bin Humain, who is believed to be more moderate than al-Ghaith, will head a body whose m embers have been criticized by Saudis for their harsh behavior.
The religious police patrol public places to make sure women are covered and not wearing makeup, the sexes don't mingle, shops close five times a day for prayers and men go to the mosque and worship.
While many Saudis say they support the idea of having the commission because its mandate is based on several verses in the Quran, Islam's holy book, they also say its members exploit their broad mandate to interfere in people's lives.
Asked about the criticism, bin Humain sidestepped the question, telling Al-Arabiya TV: "We will seek to achieve the aspirations of the rulers."
Abdullah also removed Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan, chief of the kingdom's highest tribunal, the Supreme Council of Justice.