Saudi Arabia Releases Five Christian Prisoners

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

East Africans return to their Riyadh jobs.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, June 20 (Compass) -- Five East Africans arrested and detained for a month for leading a private Christian worship service in Riyadh have been released and allowed to return to their jobs in the Saudi Arabian capital.

Three weeks after their May 30 release, the three Ethiopians and two Eritreans have been given no indication that they will lose their jobs or be subjected to deportation as a result of their detention.

“It’s a miracle. It’s not normal here for them to be released like this and allowed to go back to their jobs,” a friend of the men told Compass yesterday. “They didn’t have to notify their sponsors or anything, and they are all back at work.”

Saudi Arabia routinely deports foreign Christians caught meeting in their homes for worship, requiring their employers to terminate their work and residence visas. As a direct result of being arrested, jailed, fired from their jobs and evicted from the country, most of these Christians lose all their retirement benefits as well.

The men were interrogated extensively, initially while blindfolded the first seven days. But they said they were not physically mistreated. After their first week of detention, they were housed in what one source called “a good place, not like those where most prisoners are kept.”

From Riyadh, a consul official at the Ethiopian Embassy told Compass today that his embassy had heard nothing at all about the arrest and detention of these five men from the Saudi Arabian authorities.

“They are released?” Mr. Yitbarek said. “I didn’t get any news about this until now.”

However, he confirmed that after the prisoners’ relatives informed the embassy about the arrests, his staff had visited several detention centers in an effort to locate the prisoners. “But when we sent our colleagues to find them, they weren’t there,” the consul said.

The five men were leaders of a small house church raided by the muttawa (Islamic religious police) during a worship service on April 29. The 35 men, women and children present were told that their gathering was “forbidden” in the Saudi kingdom, where non-Muslim public worship is banned.

The group of East Africans had met privately for prayer and worship in Riyadh for at least four years, local sources said.

More than two years ago, Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmad was quoted in the April 9, 2003, issue of Arab News, declaring that non-Muslims residing in the Saudi kingdom are allowed to practice their religious beliefs “at home and in private.”

But within the past two months, at least three groups of expatriate Christians meeting privately for worship in Riyadh have been raided and their leaders put under arrest for several days or weeks. Some of those imprisoned have been fired from their jobs and others reportedly deported.

In response to recent press reports that Saudi Arabia was arresting and torturing Pakistani, Indian and East African Christians for holding “organized religious gatherings,” a Saudi official spoke anonymously to the Saudi Press Agency on June 8.

In an Associated Press article titled “Saudis Deny Persecuting Christians,” the official was quoted as saying these allegations were incompatible “with the principles and values of the kingdom, and above all, our tolerant Islamic belief, which guarantees the rights of Muslims and residents of different religions and ethnicities alike.”

Under the rule of strict Islamic law, Saudi Arabia prohibits the public practice of any religion other than Islam within its borders. Last year, it was placed on the U.S. State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” for its severe violations of religious freedom.