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Bid to stop whipping over toy bear

  • Story Highlights
  • UK PM Gordon Brown says efforts underway to secure release of teacher
  • Gillian Gibbons, 54, arrested in Sudan for insulting religion, officials say
  • Trouble began after her class named teddy bear "Mohammed"
  • Blasphemy punishable in Sudan by 40 lashes, prison or fine, reports say
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Tuesday that officials were working to secure the early release of a British teacher who faces being whipped in Sudan after she allowed her class to name a teddy bear "Mohammed."

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An undated amateur photo of Gillian Gibbons.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, was arrested Sunday after she asked her class of seven-year-olds to come up with a name for the toy as part of a school project, her head teacher told CNN.

Robert Boulos, the head of Unity High School in the capital Khartoum, said naming the teddy bear was "a totally innocent mistake" and that Gibbons had never intended to cause offense.

He said Gibbons had asked the children to pick their favorite name for the new class mascot, which she was using to aid lessons about animals and their habitats.

Classmates took turns taking the teddy bear home with them, accompanied by a diary with the bear's name written in the front of it, Boulos said.

"All this is a very sensitive area. I asked her (Gibbons) why she had done it and she said she didn't chose the name, the children did," Boulos told CNN.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Tuesday he was "very sorry" about Gibbons' arrest and that the British embassy in Khartoum was "giving all appropriate consular assistance to her."

He said all efforts were being taken to ensure her early release and that government officials were in touch with the teacher's family in the northern British city of Liverpool.

The school teacher has been accused of blasphemy and is being held by police in Khartoum, Kirsty Saunders, British Foreign Office spokeswoman told CNN.

Although there is no ban in the Koran on images of Allah or the Prophet Mohammed, likenesses are considered highly offensive by Muslims.

Parents of students at the school informed the authorities and Gibbons was taken into custody Sunday, Saunders said.

So far Gibbons has yet to be charged with any offense, however, under Sudanese law, insulting Islam is punishable with 40 lashes, a jail term of up to six months or a fine, she said.

However, a Sudanese official told CNN that if police decided that Gibbons had acted in good faith, she would most likely be spared punishment.

"If the intentions are good, definitely she will be absolved and will be cautioned not to repeat this thing again," Mutrif Siddig, Sudan's under secretary for foreign affairs, said.

He added: "To give the name of Mohammed to this teddy bear, it was considered as insult by some parents. And this school is mixed. It is not all Christian students."

Saunders said that under Sudan's laws a person can be held for no more than 24 hours without charge.

Asked if British authorities were concerned that Gibbons had been held for longer than that time, she said "we are happy that all the correct procedures are being followed."

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A Sudanese police source said officials had not finished questioning the teacher, who is being held at a facility of Sudan's criminal investigations directorate on the outskirts of Khartoum.

Gibbons had been working at the school -- popular with wealthy Sudanese and expatriates -- since August, after leaving her position as deputy headteacher at a primary school in Liverpool this summer.

On her entry on the social networking Web site MySpace, Gibbons wrote: "I am a teacher in a school in Khartoum, in Sudan. I like to make the most out of life."

According to the entry, she said her passion was travel and she was hoping to make the most of her time in Sudan by visiting nearby countries.

Gibbons was recruited to work in Sudan by QTS Worldwide, an education consultancy based in the northern county of West Yorkshire.

Eric Liddell, who runs QTS, refused to comment on the incident but said that he had spoken to members of the Unity High School staff, who were hopeful that the British teacher would be released.

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Separately, CNN contacted a member of staff, who confirmed the school had been shut down temporarily as a result of the incident involving Gibbons. He refused to give his name and said no other members of staff were available.

He said the school may open again soon, possibly as early as tomorrow. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

-- Journalist Andrew Heavens in Khartoum contributed to this report.

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