By Joe DeCaro, Worthy News International Correspondent
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (Worthy News) -- An Eritrean pastor in Saudi Arabia was hiding outside the capital Riyadh Tuesday, February 3, after allegedly receiving death threats, including from the Islamic country's feared religious police.
Yemane Gebriel, a father of eight who also worked as a private driver for 25 years, said the threats were issued in writing and verbally since last month. On January 13, a religious police official, identified as Abdul Aziz, and others allegedly forced the pastor from his car telling him to leave the country.
The pastor said in a statement that he also discovered a note on his van saying: "If you do not leave the country, we will kill you." Three days later, Aziz apparently returned, asking him why he had not left the country. Soon after, four masked men reportedly surrounded his car, saying that if he did not leave Riyadh they would kill him.
Advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) told Worthy News that the incidents came as a set-back for Gebriel, "who pastored an informal congregation for ten years and recently handed over leadership to others."
The pastor said he managed to "secretly escape" last week, January 28, to an undisclosed city with support from "consular officials".
This was not the first time the Eritrean pastor had been pressured by Saudi authorities, MEC said. "He was among a group of 17 foreign pastors held by the Saudi authorities in May 2005 before diplomatic pressure led to their release," the group explained. "The member of the religious police thought to have been behind" the pastor's arrest in 2005, "is one of those leading the current threats."
Saudi officials did not comment on the case.
Christians have linked the latest incident to a government-backed crackdown on Christian converts and church activities in Saudi Arabia. Also last month Hamoud Bin Saleh, a Saudi national, was arrested after writing on his Website about his decision to follow Jesus, instead of Islam.
He reportedly also criticized the Saudi judicial system. Local authorities have blocked access to his blog. "This is the third time that Hamoud has been detained, having been held for nine months in 2004 and for one month in 2008," MEC added.
Saudi Christians have expressed concern that the Internet writer may be executed for apostasy, under the country's strict interpretation of Islamic law.
In writings Saudi Christians requested prayers that "Hamoud and Yemane will both know the peace and presence of Jesus throughout these ordeals" and that "authorities will act mercifully" towards the two men, "including releasing him" and ending the threats.
Despite the apparent difficulties, they still hope that, "Those who have read Hamoud's blog would make a similar decision to follow Jesus," and that Christians will be able to continue to worship in this Islamic nation. (With reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos)