Saudi Police Raid Another House Church

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Ethiopian, Eritrean Christians arrested in Riyadh.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, May 4 (Compass) -- One week after arresting 40 Pakistani Christians, Saudi Arabia’s vigilante religious police broke up another private worship service of expatriate Christians in the capital last Friday.

Five elders of an East African house church were arrested after a group of muttawa (Islamic religious police) raided their gathering in Riyadh’s central Al-Olaya district on April 29.

Accompanied by high-ranking Muslim sheikhs, muttawa officers burst into a congregation of 60 Ethiopians and Eritreans who had gathered for group prayers at 4 p.m. on Friday.

“Don’t ever come again to meet in this place,” the officials warned the men, women and children in attendance. According to local sources, the muttawa confiscated 40 of the worshippers’ personal Bibles in the Amharic and Tigrinya languages, along with one woman’s cross necklace.

The five men detained at the scene were identified as Yemane Gebre Loul and Gazai Zarom, Eritreans; and Msfen Tekle, Yonas Tekle, and Teklu Mola, Ethiopians.

During their initial detention and interrogations, the five Christians were allowed to maintain telephone contact with their families, and one man’s wife was permitted to visit her husband once. But after four days, “Things have tightened up a bit,” a local source said.

“Since yesterday, the Saudi authorities have hidden them,” one Ethiopian Christian told Compass by telephone. “Nobody has seen them or talked with them.” The five have reportedly been transferred to prison facilities of the Ministry of Interior, where they are being held incommunicado.

The group of East Africans had met for prayer and worship in Riyadh for the past four years, a local source confirmed.

Yesterday, a consul official in the Eritrean Embassy in Riyadh told Compass that his embassy had not been informed of any such arrest of its citizens. Notification on such a matter would have to come through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said.

It was the second crackdown in Riyadh within a week, following the April 22 arrest of 40 Pakistani Christians participating in a joint Catholic-Protestant prayer service. Except for two men held an additional day, the Pakistani Christians were all released the same day.

The Saudi kingdom prohibits the public practice of any religion other than Islam within the country, although government officials insist that non-Muslims are allowed to practice their beliefs privately, within their own homes.

In the summer and fall of 2001, several Ethiopians and Eritreans were among 14 foreign Christian nationals arrested and then detained for up to eight months in the Saudi port city of Jeddah for their involvement in private house-church gatherings. Before their deportation, three of the Ethiopians were given 80 lashes in front of 500 other prisoners for allegedly “preaching against Islam” among their detention center cellmates.