Saudi Arabia shuts office of TV channel for fomenting sectarian tension

DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has closed down the offices of a religious television channel accused of fomenting sectarian tension, after at least eight people were killed in an attack on Shi'ite Muslims marking a major religious anniversary.

Wesal TV has long been accused of broadcasting programmes against Shi'ite Muslims, a minority that lives in the eastern and southwestern areas of mainly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia.

The channel often described Shi'ites as "rejectionists", a pejorative label which dates back to the seventh century schism between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam.

"I have ordered the offices of Wesal channel in Riyadh closed and to ban any broadcast by it in the kingdom," Saudi Information Minister Abdulaziz Khoja said on his Twitter account. "This is essentially not a Saudi channel," he added in a message in Arabic on Tuesday evening.

The royal court later said in a statement carried by state news agency SPA on Wednesday that Khoja had been relieved of his post at his request and replaced by the minister for the haj pilgrimage.

Local experts ruled out any connection between Khoja's departure and the closure of the television offices, saying the move against Wesal would have come after wider consultations.

Wesal television officials could not immediately be reached for a comment. But on its website, Wesal TV defined one of its objectives as highlighting "the accords and speeches of the turbaned Shi'ites and scholars, which exposes them and uncovers their falsehood".

The move followed the shooting at an annual ceremony marking the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, revered by Shi'ites as a symbol of their faith.

Saudi security forces on Tuesday shot dead two suspected members of the armed group that carried out the attack in the eastern al-Ahsa region on Monday night.

The attack was condemned by an official council of top Sunni Muslim scholars as a "vicious assault and a heinous crime whose perpetrators deserve the harshest religious penalties".

But some residents complained that the problem was with institutions and individuals who regard Shi'ites as heretics and justify attacks on them.

In Teheran, the Foreign Ministry also condemned the attack on fellow Shi'ites and called on the Saudi government to identify and punish the perpetrators, state news agency ISNA said on Wednesday.

In his Twitter message, Khoja also said Saudi Arabia would not tolerate any news organisation that fomented sectarian tension. "The Ministry of Culture and Information will not be silent towards any news organisation, be it written, audio, visual or online, that tries to target the homeland's national unity, security and stability," he said.

Last month, the Twitter account of one of Wesal's broadcasters, Khaled al-Ghamdi, was suspended for allegedly calling on followers to celebrate the death of Yemeni Shi'ite members of the Houthi group in a suicide bombing that had killed 47 people in Sanaa.

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