(Members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, attend a training course in Riyadh April 29, 2009 . REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed )

Saudi religious police will stop car chases that have led to fatal accidents in the past, local media say, in an attempt to soften the image of a force that aggressively enforces Islamic Sharia laws. Bearded members of the religious police patrol the streets in Saudi Arabia to enforce strict gender segregation laws and ensure that all shops close during Muslim prayer times and that men and women are modestly dressed.

Formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, religious police officers arrest those who do not adhere to their rules. Involvement in violent incidents and lethal car chases has tarnished the reputation of the force.

“The car chases by the religious police will end,” Alriyadh newspaper on Tuesday quoted the head of the force, Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh, as saying. A spokesman for the force confirmed this. “We care a great deal to make the image of the commission a positive one that reflects the true image of Islam. There is no doubt that these (plans) portray a new vision for the commission,” said the spokesman, Abdulmohsen al-Qifari.

Earlier this year, footage of religious police attacking a family outside a shopping mall in the capital, Riyadh, was posted on You Tube, registering more than 180,000 hits and generating much social media criticism of the force.