A British primary school teacher has been arrested in Sudan accused of blasphemy for allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad, it emerged today.
Gillian Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, was arrested yesterday at her home inside Unity high school, a British international school, after a number of parents made a complaint to Sudan’s education ministry.
The school’s director, Robert Boulos, said Gibbons had since been charged with blasphemy, an offence he said was punishable with up to three months in prison and a fine.
Gibbons’s colleagues told Reuters they feared for her safety after receiving reports that young men had already started gathering outside the Khartoum police station where she was being held.
Boulos said Gibbons was following a national curriculum course designed to teach young pupils about animals and their habitats. This year’s animal was the bear.
Gibbons, who joined Unity in August, asked the class of mostly seven-year-olds to name the toy.
“They came up with eight names including Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad. Then she explained what it meant to vote and asked them to choose the name.” Twenty out of the 23 children chose Muhammad.
Each child was allowed to take the bear home at weekends and was told to write a diary about what he or she did with the toy. The entries were collected in a book with a picture of the bear on the cover, next to the message “My name is Muhammad,” said Boulos.
Boulos said the first he knew about the course was last week when he received a phone call from the ministry of education, saying a number of Muslim parents had made formal complaints.
A spokesman for the British embassy in Khartoum said it was still unclear whether Gibbons had been formally charged. “We are following it up with the authorities and trying to meet her in person,” he said.
Boulos said he had decided to close down the school until January for fear of reprisals in Sudan’s predominantly Muslim capital. “This is a very sensitive issue,” he said.
“We are very worried about her safety,” he added. “This was a completely innocent mistake. Miss Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam.”
Unity, an independent school founded in 1902, is governed by a board representing the main Christian denominations in Sudan but teaches both Christians and Muslims aged four to 18.