Sudan charged a British teacher Wednesday with inciting religious hatred after she allowed her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad, an offense that could subject her to 40 lashes, the Justice Ministry said.
The charge against Gillian Gibbons was sure to heighten tensions between Sudan and Britain. In London, Foreign Secretary David Miliband urgently summoned the Sudanese ambassador to discuss the case, the British government said.
Gibbons, 54, was arrested Sunday after some of her pupils' parents complained, accusing her of naming the bear after Islam's prophet. Muhammad is a common name among Muslim men, but giving the prophet's name to an animal would be seen as insulting by many Muslims.
Prosecutor General Salah Eddin Abu Zaid said Gibbons was charged under article 125 of the Sudanese legal code and her case would be referred to court Thursday.
If convicted, she faces up to 40 lashes, six months and prison and a fine, said Abdul Daem Zumrawi, the Justice Ministry's undersecretary.
"What will be applied is (at) the discretionary power of the judge to issue the verdict," he was quoted as saying by the official Sudanese News Agency.
The meeting between Miliband and the Sudanese ambassador to discuss the charge against Gibbons would take place as soon as possible, according to the British Foreign Office.
"We are surprised and disappointed by this development and the Foreign Secretary will summon as a matter of urgency the Sudanese ambassador to discuss the matter further," said Michael Ellam, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office.
Miliband would ask the "for the rationale behind the charges and a sense of what the next steps might be" amid an escalating diplomatic dispute in the case, he said.
"We will consider our response in the light of that," Ellam said.
In Khartoum, the British Embassy said diplomats had been allowed to visit Gibbons on Wednesday. "She said she was being well-treated and that she was OK," said embassy spokesman Omar Daair.
Gibbons was teaching her pupils, who are around age 7, about animals and asked one of them to bring in her teddy bear, said Robert Boulos, a spokesman for Unity High School in Khartoum. She asked the students to pick names for it and they proposed Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad, and in September, the pupils voted to name it Muhammad, he said.
Each child was allowed to take the bear home on weekends and write a diary about what they did with it. The diary entries were collected in a book with the bear's picture on the cover, labeled, "My Name is Muhammad," he said. The bear itself was never labeled with the name, he added.
The Unity High School, a private English-language school with elementary to high school levels, was founded by Christian groups, but 90 percent of its students are Muslim, mostly from upper-class Sudanese families.
Several Sudanese newspapers ran a statement Tuesday reportedly from the school, saying the administration "offers an official apology to the students and their families and all Muslims for what came from an individual initiative." It said Gibbons had been "removed from her work at the school."
The Sudanese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday played down the significance of the case, calling it "isolated despite our condemnation and rejection of it."
Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadeq said it was an incidence of a "teacher's misconduct against the Islamic faith" but noted the school's apology.
The statement from the school in newspapers called it a "misunderstanding." It underlined the school's "deep respect for the heavenly religions" and for the "beliefs of Muslims and their rituals."
Although Khartoum officials played down the case and said it was an isolated incident, Sudan's top clerics said in a statement Wednesday that the full measure of the law should be applied against Gibbons, calling the incident part of a broader Western "plot" against Islam.
Northern Sudan's legal system is based on Islam's Sharia law, which harshly punishes blasphemy. Any depiction of the prophet is forbidden in Islam, for fear it would provoke idolatry. Caricatures of Muhammad in some European media last year sparked riots in several Muslim countries.
The Sudanese clerics said this was blasphemy and believed it was intentional.
"What has happened was not haphazard or carried out of ignorance, but rather a calculated action and another ring in the circles of plotting against Islam," the Sudanese Assembly of the Ulemas said the statement.
"It is part of the campaign of the so-called war against terrorism and the intense media campaign against Islam," they said.
Although an earlier report had suggested that only one parent had complained, the clergy statement Wednesday said that several had complained.
There have been widespread calls in Britain for Gibbons' release. The Muslim Council of Britain calls upon the Sudanese government to intervene.
"This is a very unfortunate incident and Ms. Gibbons should never have been arrested in the first place. It is obvious that no malice was intended," said Muhammad Abdul Bari, the council's secretary-general.
British opposition Conservative party lawmaker William Hague called on the British government to "make it clear to the Sudanese authorities that she should be released immediately."
"To condemn Gillian Gibbons to such brutal and barbaric punishment for what appears to be an innocent mistake is clearly unacceptable," he said.