Large Farewell Party May Have Triggered Investigation
by Barbara G. Baker
September 21, 2001
ISTANBUL (Compass) -- At least 13 foreign Christians have been arrested since mid July in Jeddah, where Saudi Arabia's religious police are apparently trying to track down Saudi nationals thought to have contact with expatriate house churches in the city.
The detained Christians, all nationals from India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, the Philippines and Eritrea, are members of house church groups within Jeddah's expatriate community.
According to a Jeddah source, a large gathering of mostly Christian foreigners in a rented hall in late June may have triggered the wave of arrests.
More than 400 people turned out on June 28 for a farewell party honoring an Indian couple who were returning home after working in Saudi Arabia for 17 years. Although held in a remote place, "just the size alone" of the gathering was problematic for Saudi authorities, the source noted.
But at the request of Prabhu and Socilia Isaac, who wanted to "thank God, who has blessed our lives," Christian songs and prayers were also part of the evening. It was later learned that a report had been filed with the police, complaining that the party was "a Christian meeting in a public place," which is strictly forbidden under the Islamic laws of the Saudi kingdom.
But equally at the root of police concerns, reportedly, was an unknown Saudi national who showed up at the Isaacs' farewell.
In May, the Isaacs had been told by their hospital employers that their work contracts were being terminated. No reasons were given, but since hospital hearsay had long identified Isaac as one of Jeddah's house church leaders, the couple packed up and bought tickets to leave July 22.
Just three days before their scheduled flight, seven "muttawa" [religious police] stormed their home in a late-night raid. The couple were interrogated for more than three hours, and after a thorough house search, their computer, photo albums, Bibles, songbooks and audio/video tapes were confiscated.
Isaac's arrest in the early hours of July 19 was reported later that day by the U.S.-based International Christian Concern (ICC). Although his wife was not detained, she was ordered to not reveal his arrest to "outside sources," ICC reported.
A week later, on July 25, an Eritrean Christian leader was arrested in another midnight raid. Iskander Menghis was detained in front of his wife and three children and hauled away with his Bibles, family photographs and tapes.
Saudi investigators are believed to have obtained the names of Menghis and other house church members in Jeddah by interrogating Isaac and examining his computer files. Investigators are examining photographs confiscated from the detained Christians, looking for the faces of one Saudi national in particular, and perhaps others suspected of "close association" with foreign Christians in the house church movement, a Jeddah resident said.
During the third week of August, another seven expatriate Christians from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Eritrea were picked up in separate arrests, some at their homes and others on the job. Except for one Eritrean national who was later deported, their whereabouts are unknown.
The six were identified as: Kebrom Haile (Eritrean), Afobunor Okey Buliamin (Nigerian), and Ethiopians Tinsaie Bizachew, Baharu Mengistu, Ibrahim Mohammed and Beferdu Fikri.
On August 29, Eritrean Yusuf Girmaye and Filipino Dennis Moreno were detained in separate arrests. Moreno's wife, who was home with their two-month-old daughter when her husband was handcuffed and taken away, said the police demanded all of their family photographs.
The last three Christians arrested in early September -- all Ethiopians -- were named as Araya Gesesew and two others identified only as Worku and Tishome.
Although Saudi officials have yet to publicly confirm that any of the 13 Christians have been taken into custody, their families and diplomatic representatives have learned the whereabouts of some of them.
The Indian Consulate in Jeddah has confirmed that Isaac is being kept in a detention center at Sharafia. So far they have been refused consular access, but his wife has been allowed to visit him "practically twice a week," a consular officer told Compass.
According to Middle East Concern (MEC), an advocacy group monitoring religious freedom abuses against Christians in the region, Isaac has not been subjected to physical torture. He did, however, go through "the usual psychological pressure," MEC reported.
The Indian Consulate said Isaac's wife confirmed that he was "in an air conditioned room, getting regular food, with his basic comforts being looked after." He could not comment, he said, on reports that Isaac has been accused of "converting Saudis to Christianity," a crime under Islamic law that could call for the death penalty.
The Ethiopian Consulate in Jeddah said it could not confirm the detention of the seven Ethiopians named in reports. "We have heard this rumor in the city," a consulate representative told Compass, "but nobody has confirmed it to us."
Meanwhile, a Nigerian consulate officer stated Buliamin's wife had reported to them on August 28 that her husband had been arrested the previous week, along with several others. "We were able in a few days to find out the correct address, where he is being held," the diplomat said. But until the consulate obtained official documentation of her husband's nationality and legal residency in Saudi Arabia, he said, they were "at a crossroads."
"The Saudi authorities have so far denied that they have taken Moreno," a diplomat at the Philippines Consulate in Jeddah told Compass. "This is the usual answer they give when they don't want interference in their investigation," he observed.
It is believed that two of the Christians are listed on their official papers as Muslims. According to an expatriate living in Jeddah, the men's employers may have falsified their documents, all written in Arabic, in order to expedite the work permit process.
"But theoretically, they are apostates from Islam," noted MEC. This could make their cases "dramatically worse," MEC stated, since Islamic law requires the execution of apostates.
2001 Copyright Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.