KHARTOUM, Sudan - A British teacher arrested for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed will probably be cleared and released soon, a spokesman for the Sudanese Embassy in London said yesterday.
Gillian Gibbons was arrested Sunday and faced possible charges of insulting religion, a crime punishable by up to 40 lashes. She was questioned yesterday by Sudanese authorities.
"I am pretty certain that this minute incident will be clarified very quickly and this teacher who has been helping us with the teaching of children will be safe and will be cleared," embassy spokesman Khalid al Mubarak told BBC radio.
Asked about the potential punishments, six months' imprisonment or 40 lashes, he said: "My impression is that the whole thing could probably be settled amicably long before we reach stages like these . . . Our relationship with Britain is so good that we wouldn't like such a minute event to be overblown."
Gibbons was arrested after one of her pupils' parents complained, accusing her of naming the bear after Islam's prophet and founder. Mohammed is a common name among Muslim men, but giving the prophet's name to an animal could be seen as insulting by many Muslims.
Several Sudanese newspapers ran a statement yesterday reportedly from Unity High School in Khartoum where Gibbons taught, saying the administration "offers an official apology to the students and their families and all Muslims for what came from an individual initiative." It said Gibbons had been "removed from her work at the school."
In the first official comment on the case, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry played down its significance yesterday. Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadeq said it was an incidence of a "teacher's misconduct against the Islamic faith" but noted the school's apology.
The statement from the school in newspapers called it a "misunderstanding." It underlined the school's "deep respect for the heavenly religions" and for the "beliefs of Muslims and their rituals," adding that "the misunderstanding that has been raised over this issue leads to divisions that are disadvantageous to the reputation of the tolerant Sudanese people."
A school administrator said the school has closed for at least the next week until the controversy eases. Unity High School, a private, English-language school with elementary to high school levels, was founded by Christian groups, but 90 percent of its students are Muslim, mostly from upper-class Sudanese families.
The school's director, Robert Boulos, told the BBC that the incident was "a completely innocent mistake. Miss Gibbons would have never wanted to insult Islam."
Gibbons, 54, was teaching her pupils, who are around age 7, about animals and asked one of them to bring in her teddy bear, Boulos said. She asked the students to pick names for it and they voted to name it Mohammed, he said.
Each child was allowed to take the bear home on weekends and write a diary about what they did with it. The diary entries were collected in a book with the bear's picture on the cover, labeled, "My Name is Mohammed," he said. The bear, itself, was never labeled with the name, he added.