Teacher held for teddy bear 'blasphemy'

Terri Judd
Tuesday 27 November 2007 01:00 GMT

A British primary school teacher in Sudan is facing 40 lashes and up to a year in jail for allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear after the Prophet Mohamed. Gillian Gibbons has been imprisoned under strict blasphemy laws for showing "contempt and disrespect against the believers".

Colleagues of Ms Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, claim she made an "innocent mistake" by allowing her class of seven year-olds to choose the name. But she was accused of insulting Islam's holiest prophet and arrested. Her actions have sparked protests in Sudan and forced the school to close until January for fear of reprisals.

Ms Gibbons' friends and colleagues said any suggestion that she would have intentionally caused offence was ridiculous.

She is being held at a police station in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. She was said to be in good health but shaken when British embassy officials visited her yesterday. The Foreign Office said she had not been charged but detained on suspicion of the crime.

Ms Gibbons had been working at Unity High School, which is popular with wealthy Sudanese and expatriates, since August after leaving her position as deputy head at Dovecot Primary School in Liverpool.

She was taken from her home in the school grounds on Sunday after several parents complained to the Education Ministry.

The school's director, Robert Boulos, said it was such a sensitive issue that he had decided to close the school until January for fear of reprisals in Sudan's predominantly Muslim capital. "We are very worried about her safety," he added. "This was a completely innocent mistake. Ms Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam."

The teacher was following a British national curriculum course designed to teach her Year 2 pupils about animals and their habitats. In September, she asked a girl to bring her teddy bear into class so that the children could name the stuffed toy.

Eight names were suggested so, in an attempt to teach the pupils about voting, she held a ballot. Twenty of 23 children chose the name Mohamed. Each child was then allowed to take the bear home at weekends and asked to write a diary about what they did with the toy. Each entry was collected in a book which bore a picture of the bear and the words "My name is Mohamed". Police have confiscated the diary and plan to interview the girl who owned the bear.

The state-controlled Sudanese Media Centre said Ms Gibbons was arrested "under article 125 of the criminal law", on suspicion of insulting faith and religion.

Mr Boulos said the first he knew about the course was last week when he received a phone call from the Education Ministry to say that some Muslim parents had made formal complaints.

One teacher said: "I had no problem with it at all. I know Gillian and she would never have meant it as an insult. I was just impressed she got them to vote." Another source said it was believed that a teacher with a grudge against Ms Gibbons brought the case to a head.

The teacher's friends said she decided to take up the challenge of working in east Africa after separating from her husband of 20 years. She planned to spend two years in Sudan and was finding the work rewarding.

Unity, founded in 1902, is an independent school for Christian and Muslim children aged four to 18 and is governed by a board representing major Christian denominations in Sudan. It prides itself on providing a British-style education to students, whatever their gender, nationality, religion or ethnic origin, "whilst encouraging mutual respect". Ms Gibbons is one of several Western teachers who work there.

She has two children Jessica, 27 – also a teacher – and John, 25, and used to live in Aigburth, Liverpool. Her former neighbour Peter Sorensen, 64, described her as a normal working mother who was a wonderful neighbour and "would not hurt a fly".

"We are very worried about the kind of conditions she is subjected to. Being held in police cell in Khartoum must be an horrendous experience," he added.

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