March 26, 2001 -- They've been called baffling, time-consuming, even "psychologically unhealthy" for children, but now, there's a new charge levied against Pokémon games and cards: un-Islamic.
Saudi Arabian authorities have decreed that there's no place for the imaginary, superpowered creatures that make up the Pokémon universe in the Islamic state. The country's highest religious authority issued a fatwa against Pokémon cards and games.
Accusing the immensely popular game of "possessing the minds" of children while promoting Zionism and gambling, Saudi Arabia's Higher Committee for Scientific Research and Islamic Law issued the fatwa, or religious verdict, this weekend.
In a statement aired on Qatar's Al Jazeera TV, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik, Saudi Arabia's mufti or high priest, warned Muslim parents to "beware of this game." He urged parents to prevent their children from playing with Pokémon cards and games in order to "protect their religion and manners."
Trouble With the Adult World
This is not the first time Pikachu and his popular band of good and evil characters have run into trouble with the adult world.
Ever since the Pokémon phenomenon hit the market three years ago, parents, school authorities and child psychologists have been at a loss to understand the obsessive hold Pokémon games have had over children.
Bans against the Pokémon cards and games stretch across many schools in the United States, Britain and Mexico, to name a few. Last year, Turkish authorities ordered a television channel to stop airing the Pokémon cartoon series after two children leaped from balconies, allegedly believing they had superhuman powers. Both children survived.
Not Quite Islamic
But this is the first time the Japanese-born game phenomenon has been banned for religious reasons.
And it's the boggling array of symbols that has come under attack. Most Pokémon cards typically have a brightly colored picture of a character along with geometric symbols corresponding to the fanciful powers it possesses.
For Saudi authorities, the symbols may not be quite as vested with the special powers they purport to hold, but they believe the symbols possess an insidious threat.
"Most of the cards figure six-pointed stars, a symbol of international Zionism and the state of Israel," the mufti said on Al Jazeera .
Other symbols include "crosses, sacred for Christians, triangles significant for Freemasons and symbols of Japan's Shintoism, which is based on the belief in more than one god," said the edict from the Higher Committee for Scientific Research and Islamic Law.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press, a spokesman for the Tokyo-based Nintendo denied Pokémon merchandise sported religious symbols.
The Pokémon phenomenon was born as a Nintendo video game in Japan three years ago. Software developers drew from Manga, the Japanese comic tradition, to come up with a cast of 151 characters, each possessed of good or evil powers.
It quickly expanded into trading cards and other merchandise that has become a multibillion-dollar enterprise that is enormously popular around the world.
Popular in the Gulf
Another concern among Saudi authorities is the fear that the craze might involve gambling, which is forbidden under Islamic law. Pokémon has evolved into a complex card game that requires children to trade cards based on a boggling calculation of points.
"Pokémon has possessed the minds of a large chunk of our students, captivated their hearts and became their preoccupation," the edict read. "[They] spend all their money to buy the cards and compete with each other to win more."
For Pokemon players, the ultimate goal is to win as many cards as possible, but this can only be achieved after juggling a cast of 151 characters through a complicated structure of points that can best be achieved by clever trading.
The Pokémon craze has come to grip the Arab world. On March 22, Pokémon Live, a stage production based on the world of Pokémon played to packed audiences during a shopping festival in Dubai.
Across the Gulf, merchandise, not always produced by Nintendo affiliates, sport Pokémon characters.
A Pokemon official told The Associated Press that the lack of licensed sales outlets or representatives in Saudi Arabia made it difficult to get information on Pokémon's reach in the Gulf state.