In Saudi Arabia — where religious persecution is a virtue and tolerance, a vice — praying as a Christian, even in the privacy of a home, is treated as a felony offence. And, notwithstanding the Koranic injunction against compulsion in Islam, Christians held in Saudi prisons for practicing their faith can be pressured to convert to Islam. These religious-freedom violations are playing out right now in the Saudi Kingdom.
On December 15, 35 Ethiopian Christians working in Saudi Arabia were arrested and detained by the kingdom’s religious police for holding just such a private prayer gathering in Jeddah. The official charge is that they were “mixing with the opposite sex” — a crime for unrelated people in that Salafi-influenced country. But the real reason is that they were praying as Christians. The six men and 29 women had held their evangelical weekly prayer meeting on the day of arrest.
A Christian leader from Saudi Arabia explained: “The Saudi officials are accusing the Christians of committing the crime of mixing of sexes because if they charge them with meeting for practicing Christianity, they will come under pressure from the international human-rights organizations as well as Western countries. In fact, when an employer of one of the detainees asked for the reason for their employee’s arrest, the Saudi official told him that it was for practicing Christianity.”
Saudi officials strip-searched all the women and subjected them to an abusive body-cavity search, and assaulted the men. In a remarkable prison interview with the Voice of America’s Amharic-language service, one of the women, who contracted an infection from the search, attested: “We are traumatized by the strip search. They treated us like dogs because of our Christian faith. While talking about me during a recent visit to the prison medical center, I overheard a nurse telling a doctor ‘if she dies, we will put her in a trash bin.’”
More than a month after their arrest, they remain in Jeddah’s Briman prison. One of the prisoners spoke to International Christian Concern (ICC), the nondenominational human-rights group that first broke the story about the arrest: “A high-ranking security official insulted us, saying, ‘You are non-believers and animals.’ He also said, ‘You are pro-Jews and supporters of America.’ We then responded, ‘We love everyone. Our God tells us to love everyone.’”
On February 7, Saudi officials ushered a Muslim preacher into their jail cell. A woman prisoner described what happened in a phone interview with ICC: “The Muslim preacher vilified Christianity, denigrated the Bible, and told us that Islam is the only true religion. The preacher told us to convert to Islam. When the preacher asked us, we didn’t deny our Christian faith. I was so offended with her false teachings that I left the meeting.”
Of Saudi Arabia’s 6 or 7 million foreign workers, 1 million or more are Christians. Some of them have resided there for 30 years, but they are prohibited from having churches. The Saudi government maintains that they are allowed to worship privately in their houses but, as the U.S. State Department delicately put it, “this right was not always respected in practice and is not defined in law.” In other words, not content with the banning of public churches, police hunt out and punish Christians praying together privately. The only exceptions are ones hidden deep within Western walled compounds.
In 2006, after years of listing it among the world’s worst religious persecutors, the State Department undertook a new diplomatic initiative with Saudi Arabia on religious freedom. It resulted in a publicized (at least in the United States) “confirmation” by the Saudis that they would allow private worship in house churches, and rein in the religious police, among other things. In high-level meetings in Saudi Arabia last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was told repeatedly that this is the policy.
It is amply clear that this is not so.
As the State Department bluntly reported in 2008: “Mutawwa’in [religious police] continued to conduct raids of private non-Muslim religious gatherings. There were also charges of harassment, abuse, and killings at the hands of the mutawwa’in. . . . These incidents caused many non-Muslims to worship in fear of, and in such a manner as to avoid discovery by, the police and mutawwa’in.”
One of the cases that has come to light in that tightly controlled country involved over 150 Filipino Catholics, who were detained in October 2010 for taking part in an underground Mass. Twelve of them, including a Catholic priest, were reportedly charged with proselytizing, and conditionally released into the custody of their employers. The Philippines’ embassy in Riyadh confirmed that it had arranged a kafala — a type of bail bond — to obtain their temporary release.
Another, in January 2011, saw the arrest of two Indian Christians, Yohan Nese and Vasantha Sekhar Vara, when religious police raided a private residence where the two were part of a prayer group. The religious police interrogated and allegedly physically abused the two men. They spent more than six months in detention, before being deported.
On February 12, 2011, Eyob Mussie, an Eritrean in his early 30s, was arrested for proselytizing. After psychiatric tests confirmed Mussie’s sanity, there were reports that he would receive the death penalty. He was eventually deported.
The Saudi practices of arresting, detaining, and abusing Christians for practicing their faith and pressing them in jail to renounce Christianity must be brought into the open. U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook should directly intervene on behalf of the imprisoned Ethiopian Christians. All concerned individuals should call the Saudi Arabian Embassy (202-342-3800), or sign this petition asking for their release.
“We want to go back to our country and worship freely,” one of the Ethiopian Christian prisoners pleaded on the phone yesterday. “Why don’t they release us?”
— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Jonathan Racho is regional manager for Africa and South Asia at International Christian Concern, a Christian human-rights organization.