Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority has issued an edict barring the use of cell phones with built-in cameras, blaming them for "spreading obscenity" _ a final resort after a ban on their sale and import failed to dent their popularity.
Camera cell phones have caught on fast throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East, particularly in oil-rich Persian Gulf countries, prompting concerns about privacy in places where people undress, theft of reading materials at book stores and newsstands, and corporate espionage by employees.
As a result, the devices have been banned by gyms, retailers and companies in many nations. In the United States, where camera phones have taken longer to gain popularity, a bill in Congress would make taking illicit photos on federal property a crime punishable by up to a year in prison and fines.
But the concern goes even further in conservative Muslim societies, where religious authorities complain camera phones are misused to photograph women without their knowledge.
A wedding in Saudi Arabia ended in a brawl over the photographing of women, and young men in the glitzy malls of the United Arab Emirates have been warned by police not to surreptitiously photograph female shoppers.
So far, however, only Saudi Arabia has taken the drastic step of banning the import or sale of camera cell phones and declaring them religiously forbidden.
Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheik, Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority, announced the religious edict Tuesday in remarks to al-Madina daily newspaper. The devices, he said, were "spreading obscenity in Muslim society," the newspaper reported Wednesday.
"All citizens should renounce this (the use of cell phones with cameras) . . . for it can harm everybody without discrimination," the paper quoted him as saying. Violators "should be strictly confronted and punished."
Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, is one of the most conservative societies in the world, with strict segregation of the sexes in public places. Women are legally forbidden to drive and must be covered head-to-toe in public.
The kingdom is also very secretive, and photography is not allowed in many public places.
A wedding party in July in southern Saudi Arabia turned violent after a female guest was caught taking photographs with her phone, according to newspaper reports. Scuffles spread to the men's section. Some guests reportedly were hospitalized.
Women are sensitive to being photographed, especially without their veils. Such celebrations are segregated in Saudi Arabia, allowing women to shed their black veils and loose outer robes.