Saudi Arabia Denies Access to Jailed Christians

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Five East Africans held in Riyadh prison.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, May 16 (Compass) -- Five East African Christians arrested at a private Christian worship service three weeks ago are being refused any access to visitors at the interrogation center where they are jailed in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh.

An expatriate friend who attempted to visit the three Ethiopians and two Eritreans last week was refused permission by prison officials of the Mabahith, an internal security force under the Saudi Ministry of Interior.

When the inquiring friend went to the prison facility on May 10, he was told the five Christians would only be allowed visitors after one month.

The five prisoners were elders in a small house church of Ethiopians and Eritreans which had met quietly without incident in Riyadh for more than four years. At least 35 men, women and children in the 60-member congregation were present when the muttawa (Islamic religious police) raided their worship service on April 29, declaring such gatherings were “forbidden” in Saudi Arabia. (See Compass Direct, “Saudi Police Raid Another House Church,” May 4, 2005.)

Yemane Gebre Loul, the only married man among the five prisoners, was hosting the house church meeting in his rented residence in Riyadh’s Al-Olaya district when the arrests occurred. An Eritrean employed as a private driver, he and his wife have eight children.

A second Eritrean, Gazai Zarom, was working as a supervisor for the Abbar Zaine company. Ethiopian Yonas Tekle was employed as a computer data-entry clerk for the same company.

The two other Ethiopians, Mesfen Tekle and Teklu Mola, were both employed by the Medgulf company.

Held initially at the Sulaymaniyeh police station, the five Christians were moved four days later to a Mabahith interrogation center at Al Ama-iletia, where they are currently incarcerated.

According to local sources, the muttawa who led the African house church raid were accompanied by regular Saudi police, totaling at least 20 officials.

The muttawa have authority to detain suspects for only 24 hours on alleged violations of the kingdom’s strict Islamic code. But local laws extend regular police detentions for a maximum five days, after which suspects must be released if formal charges are not filed.

“However in practice, persons [are] held weeks or months and sometimes longer,” the U.S. State Department’s 2004 human rights report on Saudi Arabia notes, “and the law gives the Minister of Interior broad powers to detain persons indefinitely.”

According to a local source who was an eyewitness to the April 29 raid, the latest crackdown against Christian worship was directed by a muttawa sheikh named Abdul Aziz, reportedly based out of a mosque in Riyadh’s Sulaymaniyeh district just north of Al-Olaya.

When contacted by Compass on May 9, the Ethiopian Embassy in Riyadh declared it had no information about the alleged arrest of the three Ethiopian Christians. Two days later, a consul official who identified himself as Mr. Yitbarek stated that his staff had searched for the missing men but had failed to locate them.

“I sent my colleague to the immigration prison, and there are no persons there under arrest by the name of these three persons,” Yitbarek said, speaking by phone from Riyadh. He indicated, however, that he would have inquiries made at the Mabahith center to learn if they were jailed there.

The consul expressed surprise that the three men had not yet tried to contact Ethiopian officials, stating that local authorities normally allow detainees to telephone their embassy.

Earlier in April, a congregation of 40 Pakistani Christians gathered in a Riyadh home for a joint Catholic-Protestant prayer service were also arrested and ordered to stop meeting. Except for two men held for questioning until the following night, the detained adults and children were all released the same day.

Named last September to the U.S. State Department’s blacklist of “countries of particular concern” for its severe violations of religious freedom, Saudi Arabia prohibits the public practice within its borders of any religion other than Islam.

Despite government insistence that non-Muslims are allowed to practice their beliefs in private, the semi-autonomous religious police continue to arrest and demand the deportation of Christian guest workers caught meeting for worship in their homes.

More than a fourth of the residents of the Saudi kingdom are foreign citizens.