Saudi Clerics Back Death Fatwa For Liberal Writers

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - A group of Saudi clerics has come out in support of a colleague who issued a fatwa saying two writers deserve to die if they did not retract views that he said made them apostates.

Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak, one of the kingdom's most revered clerics, said in a rare fatwa last week the columnists should be tried for apostasy for "heretical articles" published in al-Riyadh newspaper and put to death if they do not repent.

They questioned the Sunni Muslim view in Saudi Arabia that adherents of other faiths should be considered unbelievers, which Barrak said implied Muslims were free to follow other religions and their faith was on a par with other religions.

A group of 20 clerics, all associated with Barrak, issued a statement on Tuesday asking God to support him in the face of a "wicked attack" by liberals with "polluted beliefs."

"We know the Sheikh's knowledge in religion and status in the Islamic nation and trust Muslims place in his opinions ... The fatwa is based on the book of God (Koran) and the path of the Prophet," they said in the statement posted on Web sites.

"The Sheikh's words were clear in placing the issue in the hands of the temporal authorities when he said that there must be a trial. We affirm there should be a trial."

Barrak, who is thought to be around 75, is viewed by Islamists as the leading independent authority of Saudi Arabia's hardline version of Sunni Islam, often termed Wahhabism.

Liberal reformers are engaged in a battle with religious hardliners over the direction of the country, a key U.S. ally and the world's biggest oil exporter.

"This is in my view the largest show of force in the Wahhabi movement in a long time," said Ali al-Ahmad, a Saudi opposition figure based in Washington.

Saudi Arabia regularly executes drug traffickers, rapists and murderers, but it is rare for calls to try or execute people for opinions expressed in public.

Rights groups have accused Wahhabism of a xenophobic attitude which demonizes other religions.