The Saudi government beheaded 52 men and one woman last year for crimes including murder, homosexuality, armed robbery and drug trafficking. But Saudis say that while Islam condones the punishment in one context, it condemns militants who decapitated hostages here and in Iraq.
Islam permits the death penalty for certain crimes, but few mainstream Muslim scholars and observers believe beheadings are sanctioned by Sharia, or Islamic law.
The Saudi government says the punishment is sanctioned by Islamic tradition. State-ordered beheadings are performed in courtyards outside crowded mosques in major cities after weekly Friday prayer services.
A condemned convict is brought into the courtyard, hands tied, and forced to bow before an executioner, who swings a huge sword amid cries from onlookers of "Allahu Akbar!" Arabic for "God is great."
On Friday, outside the main mosque in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, a policeman standing in the scorching summer heat declared to worshippers: "There are no qisas today." Qisas is the Arabic word for Islamic-law punishments -- which in the kingdom could mean beheadings or the amputation of limbs.
But Saudi clerics insist beheading is only allowed in the case of criminal convictions -- not in the killing of innocents.
"No religion condones these acts," Abdul Muhsen al Obaiqan, a senior Islamic cleric in Riyadh, said.
"They are against Islam and they tarnish the image of Muslims. No Muslim should show any sympathy for them," he said.
Last week, al-Qaeda-linked militants in Saudi Arabia decapitated American engineer Paul Johnson after warning they would kill him if the Saudi government did not release jailed comrades.
In Iraq this week, militants beheaded Kim Sun-il, a South Korean translator for a US military supplier, and dumped his body between Baghdad and Fallujah. US businessman Nicholas Berg met a similar fate last month in Iraq. Both killings are blamed on the al-Qaeda-linked movement of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The beheadings were videotaped, photographed and posted on the Internet. On Islamic Internet forums, mostly used by radicals, beheading has been a popular topic in recent weeks, with many participants describing it as the "easiest" way to kill an American or a Saudi from the ruling family.
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