A Saudi cleric is garnering headlines for declaring that the sun revolves around the Earth, a clear rejection of all scientific evidence.
The comments have sparked discussion about Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious authority, which holds sway over the nation’s newly enthroned monarch, King Salman.
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The controversial cleric, Sheikh Bandar al-Khaibari, was caught making the comments in a short video clip posted to YouTube on Monday.
In response to a question posed by a student, al-Khaibari says the Earth is "stationary and does not move."
While al-Khaibari’s remarks have been mocked on social networking sites such as Twitter, regional experts say his anti-science stance is embraced and promoted by leading Saudi clerics in charge of the country’s religious authority.
"It makes perfect sense for a Saudi cleric to be arguing that the sun revolves around the Earth because this is the sort of message they are getting from on high," according to David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).
"Saleh al-Fawzan, one of the most influential members of the regime’s highest religious body, the Senior Ulema Council, said the same thing last year," explained Weinberg, who has also tracked the new king’s past support for radical terror groups. "King Salman restructured most of his government last month after coming to power, but he kept Fawzan on the Ulema Council, dismissing only one member who was considered a relative moderate."
This is a sign that Salman, who has been touted by many as a moderate, could continue to allow the country’s strict religious authority to clamp down on civil rights and other Western values.
Al-Khaibary’s lecture on astronomy took place in late January, during a government-sponsored lecture in the United Arab Emirates, according to sources provided by FDD. He has given similar lectures sponsored by the Saudi government.
In addition to promoting the notion that the Earth is stationary in space, al-Khaibary’s mentor cleric Fawzan has claimed that the Islamic State (IS) terror group is a creation of "Zionists, crusaders, and Safavids," according to Weinberg.
"That’s the sort of message that Saudi religious officials are receiving from the state’s favorite clergy," Weinberg said.
Al-Khaibary’s comments, while surprising to a Western audience, have been echoed in the past by religious leaders such as Fawzan, who is regularly cited by al-Khaibary as a "rational man."
Other posts on a Twitter account appearing to belong to al-Khaibary claim that Shia Muslims, a minority population in Saudi Arabia, "are more insidious than Christians and equivalent to Jews."
The cleric also states on Twitter that "Christians in all their three main sects—Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants—are infidels, and whoever doubted their infidel status is himself an infidel," according to another positing.
Anti-science stances have long been promulgated by leading Saudi clerics, including one of the country’s most influential and celebrated religious leaders, the now deceased Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz.
Bin Baz is perhaps most notorious for his 1976 ruling that the Earth is flat.
FDD’s Weinberg said Fawzan’s position on Saudi Arabia’s religion council provides a sign of the direction that country is heading.
"This gives you an idea of where Saudi Arabia is headed under King Salman," he said. "Salman kept Fawzan on the Senior Ulema Council while dismissing a relative moderate. He [enjoys close ties to] the current grand mufti, who says that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed. And he sat for years on the board of the foundation set up to honor the legacy of Abdul Aziz bin Baz, even though bin Baz also memorably suggested that women who study with men are akin to prostitutes."