DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Star or not, Saudi Arabia’s enforcers of virtue make no exceptions: handshakes and congratulatory kisses in mixed company are a no-no in a public mall.

Religious authorities briefly detained Saudi singer Hisham Abdel Rahman for causing an indecent scene, a Riyadh police official said Saturday.

The singer gained fame in the Arab world for winning this year’s “Star Academy” reality TV show, based on a French program of the same name. The broadcast has the same kind of fan base that makes the U.S. show “American Idol” such a big moneymaker for Fox television.

Male and female fans had spotted Abdel Rahman, 24, strolling through Kingdom Tower Mall on Wednesday and rushed to shake his hand and bestow congratulatory kisses, a police official said.

Members of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the formal name for Saudi Arabia’s religious police, doing their regular mall patrol were offended by the scene, which they deemed “improper,” the policeman said on condition of anonymity.

The religious police tried to disperse the crowd and told Abdel Rahman to leave the mall, according to local newspaper accounts confirmed by the police official. The young star, however, reportedly refused and started squabbling with the enforcers of virtue.

Abdel Rahman was forcibly escorted out of the mall and taken to religious police offices for questioning. He was held briefly before a senior government official intervened and ordered him freed, the police officer said. The Arab News, an English-language Saudi daily, reported that the intervention was a telephone call from the office of Riyadh Gov. Prince Salman.

Abdel Rahman then was flown to his hometown of Jiddah, the official said.

The line was cut in the midst of an Associated Press telephone call to a religious police official to ask about the incident, and attempts to re-establish contact failed. A senior Interior Ministry official said he was unaware of the incident.

Arab News quoted Bander al-Mutairy, an official at the religious police office that detained Abdel Rahman, as saying he had “violated a rule and created chaos in the (Kingdom) Tower Mall and that had to be stopped.”

The Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., which owns “Star Academy,” confirmed the incident. The AP was unable to reach Abdel Rahman for comment.

But in a Friday interview with the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat, Abdel Rahman denied he was detained or mistreated, calling the reports “merely purposeful rumors.”

“What really happened was that a committee member approached me, with all due respect, and asked me not to stay among a big crowd. I took my family members (away) … until the crowd disappeared and then we left for Jiddah as if nothing had happened,” Abdel Rahman said.

LBC launched “Star Academy” in December 2003, bringing 16 young Arabs together in a shared house north of Beirut where they could be watched 24 hours a day on satellite TV as they cooked, ate, slept – in sexually segregated quarters – and attended classes in sport, singing, music and dance.

Over the weeks, participants were voted off the program by viewers until the final episode, when millions of people around the Arab world chose from the final two. The winner received a recording contract; Abdel Rahman was the winner of the second season.

Conservative clerics in the kingdom have criticized the show from the start.

Grand Mufti Adul-Aziz al-Sheik, the kingdom’s highest religious authority, issued an edict last year calling the show an open invitation to sin, saying Muslims should avoid it. Al-Sheik condemned the program for showing unmarried men and women mixing in a house, saying it “killed modesty.”

In the conservative Middle East, society dictates that unrelated, single men and women must not live together under the same roof.

Saudi Arabia forbids any such public interaction. Women must be covered head to toe, except for their faces and hands, when outside their homes.

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AP-ES-04-23-05 1452EDT

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