DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — One of Saudi Arabia's most conservative provinces has demolished a towering concrete sculpture in response to complaints by residents that it resembled a Christian cross, prompting a local commentator on Tuesday to criticize the move as possible blowback for recent reforms.
State-linked local news sites, including NewsQassim.com, reported that the municipal office for the landlocked, central province of Qassim took down the sculpture last Friday.
Videos and photos posted on social media and local news sites showed the sculpture in ruins after demolition by bulldozers in Qassim's provincial capital of Buraydah, 220 miles (350 kilometers) northwest of the country's capital, Riyadh.
The surprise move comes as the kingdom pivots toward greater embrace of the arts by holding for the first time in decades musical concerts in its major cities, including an orchestra performance from Japan last week.
The entertainments drive — led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — has also included monster truck shows, a hip-hop illuminated dance show, comedy nights and even a Saudi Comic-Con event that starred two Game of Thrones actors.
Saudi Arabia also curtailed the powers of the religious police last year, angering some among the kingdom's ultraconservative Wahhabi religious establishment.
Commentator Akal Al-Akal criticized the demolition in an op-ed in Tuesday's pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper, saying the sculpture had been there for 25 years and its destruction was an attempt to embarrass state institutions.
He said those behind such acts are "playing on the emotions and feelings of the local public," adding that he believes the destruction of the sculpture may have been aimed at "inciting public opinion about life in Saudi Arabia as it embarks on a real opening for the arts."
"We must respect the symbols of other religions, just as we seek similar treatment in other countries," he said, adding that Islam is superior to narrow interpretations by extremists groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State group in Iraq, which have destroyed religious sites, shrines and temples.
Municipal officials in Qassim could not be immediately reached for comment.
Many Arab Christians communities and minority Muslim sects across the region are struggling in the face of war, religious violence and discrimination.
Mosques are the only legally permissible places of worship in Saudi Arabia, though Christian residents have conducted worship services discreetly without interference.
An ancient community of Christians once inhabited the southwestern region of Najran in the Arabian Peninsula, which in present-day Saudi Arabia runs along the Yemen border. The Prophet Muhammad's treaty with the Christians of Najran, and allowing them a space to pray safely in his mosque in Medina, are often cited by scholars of Islam and moderate clerics as an example of religious pluralism and tolerance.
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