BEIRUT, Lebanon - When the men from the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice arrived unexpectedly at a shopping mall in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the trendy Saudi youth in their Western-style attire were seized with fear.

The religious force is notorious for beating up and arresting men and women in Saudi Arabia for what members perceive as immoral behavior as well as Western ways of behaving or dressing up.

But this time, the bearded men of the religious police had totally different intentions. They just wanted to engage in a game of bowling with a group of youth at the mall in the Saudi coastal city, the local daily Al-Watan reported last week.

The newspaper said that high-ranking officials from this police force, who turned out to be talented bowlers, won the game against the young group of bowlers. They all engaged in a friendly conversation, Al-Watan added.

This unusual event raised questions in the kingdom about whether the morality police widely viewed as austere and brutal are trying to spruce up their public image by engaging with young people.

The few thousand clerical policemen, known in Arabic as


, have come under criticism lately for their extreme policing ways in implementing the laws of Islam in a country where the strict and puritanical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is prevalent.

Officially recognized by the Saudi government, the religious police can raid private homes in search for "sinners" drinking alcohol or engaging in banned sexual activities. They can stop men and women who are unrelated by blood or marriage for meeting in a public place. They can also imprison those who are caught failing to perform one of the daily five prayers of Islam.