Last Two Christian Prisoners Deported From Saudi Arabia

Sunday, August 11, 2002

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, April 1 (Compass) -- An Ethiopian and Filipino Christian jailed since last summer in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah were released and deported to their home countries over Easter weekend.

Filipino Dennis Moreno flew home to Manila on Emirates airlines on Saturday, March 30, the Philippines Consulate in Jeddah confirmed today.

Ethiopian Worku Aweke, identified as Ismail Abubakr on his Saudi identity papers, left Jeddah's Bremen deportation center the previous night on a flight back to Addis Ababa, Moreno reported.

The two were the last of 14 expatriate Christians imprisoned for months by the Saudi "muttawa" (religious police) without formal charges for allegedly illegal Christian activities.

Moreno, who spoke with Compass by telephone from Manila today, said he had "no revenge in my heart" toward the Saudi authorities for the mistreatment and injustices done against him and the other Christians jailed for so many months. "My heart desire is that they will change," he said. "They are really scared. The government is afraid because people there are changing their faith."

A spokesman at the Philippines Consulate blamed the last 10 weeks of delay in Moreno's deportation on the "traffic of outbound passengers from Jeddah," as thousands of pilgrims returned home at the conclusion of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. According to the official, deportees from Saudi Arabia are classified as stand-by passengers, even if they have a confirmed booking for a particular flight.

"And there were some problems with the cars registered in his name, so he had to clear that up first," the spokesman said. Moreno's wife said she had delivered the final paperwork for his release to the deportation center just hours before he was escorted to the airport Saturday afternoon.

"Even Dennis didn't have any news of it beforehand," Yolly Moreno told Compass. But three hours after she returned home, he called her from the Jeddah airport, saying he was about to leave for Dubai. "I was so shocked," she said, "but I was happy, believe me!"

According to the Philippines Consulate spokesman, his office had been informed back in October by the Saudi police that Moreno was "charged for proselytizing." He admitted, however, that these charges were never produced in writing.

Arrested from his home on August 29, 2001, Moreno had worked as a driver and car mechanic in Saudi Arabia for 16 years. His wife and three children remain in Jeddah, where she will complete her current hospital contract as an ICU nurse in May.

Aweke, an unmarried Ethiopian of Christian descent, had worked for six years in the Gulf kingdom.

Aweke was seen in person by Moreno's wife two weeks ago, when she was visiting her husband at the deportation center. "He looked very thin," she said, and his clothes were in tatters. "I told Dennis to share the food I brought for him with Worku," she said. During the six weeks Aweke was isolated in a prison in Mecca, he reportedly had not had money for food or clothing.

On March 20, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Consulate in Jeddah had confirmed that "every travel arrangement had been made" for Aweke's deportation the previous week, but his March 14 departure was delayed by Saudi authorities "because of a computer failure at immigration."

Moreno and Aweke were among 14 foreign Christians, citizens of India, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Philippines, who were involved in expatriate house churches meeting privately for worship in Jeddah. After refusing them consular access for five months, Saudi authorities began deporting them in January and February. All have lost their jobs and most of their work benefits in Saudi Arabia, which enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic law forbidding non-Muslims from meetings for public worship.

Moreno said he had been "blessed by God" to be released and arrive home safely, after seven long months in Saudi custody. "God humbled me," he declared, "and at the same time, I know that I need to know Him more. I keep praying for the people there."

Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct.