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Student defends Briton jailed over teddy bear


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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A 7-year-old Sudanese student on Tuesday defended the British teacher accused of insulting Islam saying he had chosen to call a teddy bear Mohammad because it was his own name.

Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old teacher at the Unity High School in Khartoum, was arrested on Sunday after complaints from parents that she had insulted Islam's Prophet by allowing the bear to be named Mohammad. She is facing a third night in jail without being formally charged.

"The teacher asked me what I wanted to call the teddy," the boy said shyly, his voice barely rising above a whisper. "I said Mohammad. I named it after my name," he added.

Sitting in his garden wearing shorts, his family, who did not want their full names used, urged him to describe what had happened.

He said he was not thinking of Islam's Prophet when asked to suggest a name, adding most of the class agreed with his choice.

In a writing exercise students were asked to keep a diary of what they did with the teddy bear. "Some people took the teddy home and took it places with them ... like the swimming pool," the child said.

Mohammad said Gibbons was "very nice" and he would be upset if she never came back to teach. He added Gibbons had not discussed religion nor did she mention the Prophet.

"We studied maths and English and spelling," he said, rubbing his mop of short, curly hair.

Justice Minister Mohamed Ali al-Mardi told Reuters formal charges would be leveled once investigations had been completed.

"(The charges) are under the Sudanese penal code ... insulting religion and provoking the feelings of Muslims," he said.

"These are preliminary -- after investigation the final charges will be ascertained," he added.

If charged and convicted of insulting Islam, Gibbons could be sentenced to 40 lashes, six months in prison or a fine, lawyers said.

Teaching colleagues and officials from the British embassy brought food for Gibbons but were not allowed to visit her.

Mohammad's family said they got most of their information from the papers after the school was closed early on Monday.

"I'm annoyed ... that this has escalated in this way," his mother said. "If it happened as Mohammad said there is no problem here - it was not intended."

His uncle said little Mohammad was a good Muslim and was already praying five times a day. "We want to also hear her side of the story," he added.

Unity director Robert Boulos had said the school would be closed until January because he was afraid of reprisals in mainly Muslim Khartoum.

In 2005 a Sudanese paper was closed for three months and its editor arrested for reprinting articles questioning the roots of the Prophet Mohammad, a move which prompted angry protests.

Al-Wifaq editor Mohamed Taha was later abducted from his home by armed men and beheaded.

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Maybe that big wall in Israel isn't a half bad idea. Surely if 'that name' is such a holy one, it shouldn't be allowed to be given to children in the first place. Can you imagine having to tell the dear child named with 'that name', that he's talking to much in class and needs to shut up? Instant death.

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It's a teddy bear, a symbol of unconditional love, acceptance, friendship, and peace that almost any child or adult understands. It saddens me that some people could find it an insult to name a child's teddy bear after the name of the prophet of Islam, or after a boy whose name happens to be the same. Is it an insult to name the boy thus, also? I'd hope people would see they're arguing over a teddy bear and using it against a person.

Would I be insulted if a child named a teddy bear after Abraham or Moses, or after Mary or one of the apostles? No. Those were men and women, like us, no matter how revered. Would I be insulted if a child named a teddy bear after Jesus? No. I might think a more appropriate choice could be made, but it is not an insult, especially if the boy who named it was a Latino boy named Jesus. It's what the teddy bear symbolizes that's important here: love, peace, and friendship. And no, it's absolutely not an idol. It's a child's toy and friend. How sad and disturbing that some people would not see that, and try to use it against a teacher, or a toy, or perhaps a small boy.

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