Foreign Christians Still Locked up in Jeddah

Friday, August 3, 2001

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, November 27 (Compass) -- More than a dozen foreign Christians remain jailed in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, where local authorities have for months ignored inquiries and notes of protest from consulates requesting diplomatic access to their imprisoned citizens.

Saudi officials have refused to give any reason to the consulates of India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Philippines for the detention of the expatriates, rounded up in a series of arrests that began on July 19. Only the Ethiopian Consulate has been issued a list confirming the names of their citizens being held under investigation; the other diplomatic missions only learned of the arrests through relatives of the prisoners.

According to the Ethiopian consular section chief, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided his government with a list of the Ethiopians under arrest in Jeddah about two weeks ago.

"They gave us a list of around nine to 11 people who are detained," the consul told Compass today. "I hope they will also reply as concerning their status in the near future." He said no reason was given why the men had been placed under investigation, and no dates or places of arrest were listed.

Meanwhile, seven more Ethiopians, several of them women, were reportedly detained in early November as they left a house church meeting. At least four were released after producing valid residency papers, the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) confirmed, but two without work visas were sent to a deportation center.

According to members of the local Ethiopian community, a man of Yemeni/Eritrean background has been visiting various Christian believers in Jeddah, threatening to "turn them in to the authorities" unless they paid him a bribe.

All legally employed by Saudi companies, the arrested Christians were active in expatriate house churches worshipping in private homes. The Saudi kingdom's strict version of Islamic law prohibits public worship by members of faiths other than Sunni Islam. Although officials claim that Christians are permitted to meet privately for worship, zealous religious police frequently arrest those who do.

"We are not aware of the inside developments," a representative of the Indian Consulate admitted today. "The investigation is over. Probably the report has been sent to Riyadh, so a decision will be made in Riyadh."

Indian national Prabhu Isaac was the first Christian arrested, apparently in an attempt to track down Saudi nationals thought to be in contact with expatriate house churches in Jeddah.

Noting that Isaac's wife was visiting her husband regularly, the diplomat said he did not expect any resolution on the Christian prisoners' case until after Ramadan, when "official work will resume" in Saudi Arabia, he said.

Another diplomat remarked that during the month of Muslim fasting, which began 10 days ago, "The period of work is quite short, and very abnormal." He said most Saudis were only working from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. during Ramadan, and that most government institutions would start closing down within a week in anticipation of Id al-Fitr, one of the two largest religious holidays of the Muslim year.

Some local observers expressed hope, however, that the Christians might be released during the religious feast marking the end of Ramadan, in accordance with the custom of Islamic governments to issue a general amnesty for prisoners jailed on minor offenses.

According to family members allowed to visit the prisoners almost weekly now, the men are being told a variety of reasons for their prolonged detention. One guard told a prisoner's wife that these Christian leaders were not being released yet "because of the American action in Afghanistan," while another said the hold-up was simply a letter coming from the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh.

During the past two weeks, visiting relatives said the prisoners had been told they will be deported "soon" and sent back to their home countries. Since mid October, they have been assured that the investigations against them were finished, and so far none have been charged with any offense before a "sharia" (Islamic law) court.

"We are really at a loss as to how to move forward," a spokesman for the Nigerian Consulate in Jeddah told Compass today. "We have written three or four letters of protest," he said, "and our embassy in Riyadh has intervened as well. But we have not been able to see our citizen up to now."

The Nigerian diplomat said that when Nigerian Afobunor Okey Buliamin is released, he would "definitely" be deported. "Normally, if you are arrested as a foreigner, and you spend some days in detention, the possibility of being released back into Saudi society is very, very remote -- even if you are not charged with any offense."

However, Buliamin's wife told Compass that she was praying that the plan to deport them would be reversed. She said her husband had told her three days ago that some of his fellow prisoners were "depressed and discouraged that nothing is happening" to release them.

"He said to me that he believes that he will not be sent back, that he will be released back to Jeddah, to his home," she said. "But the other brethren, they are discouraged. So we should pray that courage should come back to every one of them!"

The Eritrean Consul General in Jeddah denied any knowledge of the arrest of three Eritrean citizens among the jailed Christians. "I have not received any information until now," the diplomat repeated several times, identifying himself only by his first name, Michael.

"There are a lot of Christians here in Jeddah," he observed, stating there was no problem between the expatriate Christians and other communities in the city.

In a related development, a British citizen formerly employed in Jeddah has confirmed that he was abruptly fired by his company on August 1, two weeks after Isaac's arrest. His company refused to explain the reason for terminating his contract, which had been renewed in June for another two years.

But before he left Saudi Arabia, an acquaintance in the security police told the Briton privately that his dismissal had been demanded by the authorities on the basis of a video confiscated from Isaac's home showing the Englishman preaching.

Copyright 2001 Compass Direct. Used with Permission.