Saudi Arabia recently approved changes stripping the country's religious police of their powers to arrest citizens deemed to have violated Islamic law. Under the new policies, religious police must instead report violators to the country's regular police forces or to drug enforcement agencies.
But what do religious police do, exactly -- and where do they do it?
As Laura Ling reports in this Seeker Daily special, at least 17 countries field some kind of religious police force. These are official, state-sanctioned squads that enforce religious norms and a moral code of conduct. Most countries with religious police are Islamic and are located in the Middle East and North Africa.
There are some exceptions, though. Certain groups of radical Hindu activists in India function as a kind of unofficial moral police, raiding pubs and cracking down on obscene dancing. These groups are not employed by the government, however, and in fact have been denounced by the state. The government of Vietnam deploys a kind of anti-religious police force, harassing Christian and Buddhist sects that openly oppose the Communist government.
RELATED: What Is Sharia Law?
Saudi Arabia's religious police force -- the Mutaween -- is by far the largest in the world, with more than 4,000 state-funded officers on patrol in the country. Officers sometimes work directly with the secular police forces, but they can also patrol on their own. Until the recent changes in official policy, the Mutaween could detain and arrest anyone suspected of immoral behavior under Islamic law. This could be anything from indulging in public displays of affection to wearing nail polish.
Saidi Arabia's modern religious police tradition goes all the way back to the 1930s. Its mandate has traditionally been to strictly enforce Sharia law, including daily prayer, gender segregation and abstinence from alcohol, drugs and tobacco. But recent incidents have turned public opinion against the morality squads. In 2002, 15 Saudi schoolgirls died when Mutaween officers blocked the girls from escaping a burning building, because they were not wearing modest clothing With the new rules now in effect, religious police are prohibited from taking any direct action against citizens. According to the official Saudi press agency, officers now must "carry out the duties of encouraging virtue and forbidding vice by advising kindly and gently."
-- Glenn McDonald
Pew Research Center: Religious police found in nearly one-in-ten countries worldwide
New York Times: Saudi Arabia Moves to Curb Its Feared Religious Police
Aljazeera: Saudi Arabia strips religious police of arresting power
The Guardian: Hamas patrols beaches in Gaza to enforce conservative dress code