With the world’s greatest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is one of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East, and one on which many Western countries are dependant for oil. However, it also has one of the worst human rights records, severely restricting the right to freedom of expression, the rights of women and religious freedom.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. It is ruled by a monarchy that subscribes to a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Punishments include floggings, lengthy imprisonment and public beheadings. There are almost 4000 religious police officers (the mutawaah), tasked with enforcing the country’s strict Sharia law. Forms of Islam other than Sunni Islam are restricted and the public practice of other religions is forbidden. All Saudi citizens are considered to be Muslims. It is illegal to evangelise Muslims, and, according to Nina Shea, director of the Washington-based Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Saudi Arabia is the “only nation state in the world with the official policy of banning all churches”.

Religious freedom does not exist in Saudi Arabia and no church buildings are permitted. The small number of Saudi Christians (mostly, but not all, migrant workers or expatriates) must practise their faith in extreme secrecy. Although expatriate Christians are officially permitted to worship in private, their meetings may be raided by the mutawaah. Numerous expatriate Christians have been deported in recent years following arrest. Migrant workers from countries such as Ethiopia, India and the Philippines are often targeted due to the low levels of protest from their governments. Christians arrested for their faith face imprisonment, torture and possible sexual abuse.

In September 2016, the authorities raided a Christian home in the city of Khafji, eastern Saudi Arabia, and arrested and deported 27 Lebanese Maronites for “un-Islamic prayer”. The Christians had been praying and celebrating a church festival in a private home.

In September 2014, a house church in Khafji was raided and 28 people were arrested, including children. Bibles and musical instruments were also seized. The Christians, mostly expatriate workers from South Asia, were held overnight and released the following day, apart from a leader who was held for another night.

Sources: Aleteia, BBC News, Church in Chains Global Guide, International Christian Concern, Open Doors World Watch List, Premier Christian Radio

SAUDI ARABIA: Prison and lashes for “brainwashing” woman to become Christian

The Al-Khobar District Court has found two men, one Lebanese and one Saudi Arabian, guilty of “brainwashing” a Saudi woman, known only as the “girl of Khobar”, to convert to Christianity and helping her to leave the country with a false travel permit over a year ago.

The Lebanese man was sentenced to six years in prison and 300 lashes, while the Saudi was sentenced to two years and 200 lashes. Their lawyers have challenged the verdict and said they would file an appeal.