RIYADH - The fate of a senior member of Saudi Arabia's religious police who outraged conservatives by backing gender mixing and private prayers was unclear Sunday after an order sacking him was apparently rescinded.
Confusion over the status of Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, the general manager of the religious police's Mecca branch, seemed to expose high-level tensions between conservatives and rising progressives pressing for the lifting of many of the rules which dominate Saudi life.
Hours after the Commssion for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice posted an announcement Sunday from its president, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Humain, saying that Ghamdi had been replaced, the statement was removed from its website and the state news agency SPA declared the news "cancelled."
Saudi journalists said they were told simply not to report the original announcement, but were not clear whether Ghamdi would hold onto his position.
"Please cancel it and not use it," SPA said about the original statement announcing Ghamdi's replacement, along with three other senior members of the religious police, also known as muttawa.
For weeks rumours have spread of Ghamdi's possible removal from his position in Islam's holiest city, after he gave interviews saying there was nothing wrong under Islamic dogma with mixing of unrelated men and women, and that Muslims were not absolutely bound to take their prayers with groups in mosques.
On Wednesday he made multiple denials after a news report said he had been fired by Humain for making statements advocating free mixing of unrelated men and women.
Humain did not give any reason for Sunday's announcement of his replacement.
But it came after Ghamdi was reportedly dressed down on Thursday by the country's highest cleric.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh told Ghamdi he was getting involved in matters of law that were outside his authority, the Al-Madinah newspaper reported on Friday.
Ghamdi has argued that Islamic scripture does not support the strict segregation enforced by Saudi Arabia's ultra-strict Wahhabi school.
"There is nothing in Islamic law about mixing," he said in interviews with Saudi newspapers.
Behind Ghamdi's case is an increasingly public battle over loosening the ultra-conservative rules governing the kingdom, including tight restrictions on women in public life and the world's only ban on women driving.
Saudi progressives, including much of the mainstream media, have been increasingly vocal and direct in criticising the religious police, and have made Ghamdi a public figure in reporting his bold statements.
In December Ghamid endorsed a new research university near Jeddah, where an international group of men and women scientists freely mix in their work.
The idea of the new university's free environment seemed to place him on the side of Saudi King Abdullah, for whom the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology is named.
Just two months earlier Abdullah had sacked cleric Sa'ad al-Shethry from the powerful Council of Senior Ulema after he criticised mixing of the sexes at the new institute.
Since then, conservatives have continued to blast Ghamdi's views.