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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Senior Muslim clerics have urged Sudanese youngsters to boycott Valentine's Day, saying it is a Western institution that could lead couples astray.
Members of the Sudan Ulema Authority, an influential body of religious leaders, called on young men and women to ignore the event on February 14 and resist the temptation to mark it by taking romantic strolls in parks.
"Valentine's Day comes from Western countries. I call on Muslims not to imitate Christians," said preacher Sheikh Hassan Hamid in a statement released to Reuters on Wednesday.
"The money that is spent on Valentine's Day would be better spent encouraging young people to marry," he added.
The lovers' holiday has become increasingly popular in recent years among students and young people in the capital, with Valentine cards available in Khartoum shops.
North Sudan's conservative culture frowns on public displays of affection between men and women -- kissing and holding hands in the street are unheard of.
But young couples can occasionally be seen sitting, a decent distance apart, in parks and some of the city's flashier fast food restaurants.
Sudan's north is almost entirely Muslim, and Islamic sharia law has been enforced there since the 1980s. However, Christians and followers of traditional African beliefs dominate the country's semi-autonomous south.
Authority member Al-Muhalab Barakat said Sudan's young people should not waste their time wandering through city parks on Valentine's Day.
"This is just part of Western culture that should not be followed in Sudan," he said in a statement seen by Reuters on Wednesday.
"Youths who go to parks with young girls up to midnight can make mistakes."
Statements from members of the Ulema Authority are respected by Muslims, but they are not legally binding.
Reporting by Andrew Heavens and Khaled Abdelaziz; Editing by Katie Nguyen