The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia holds vast oil reserves and is the birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. However, it also has one of the worst human rights records, severely restricting the right to freedom of expression and the rights of women. Religious freedom does not exist in Saudi Arabia and no church buildings are permitted. Muslims who leave Islam face threats from family and religious leaders and can face severe punishments under Sharia law, including the death penalty.
Almost 4,000 religious police officers (mutawaah) patrol the streets to enforce strict Sharia law, and punishments include amputations, floggings and long imprisonment. All Saudi citizens are considered to be Muslims. Forms of Islam other than Sunni Islam are restricted, the public practice of other religions is forbidden and it is illegal to evangelise Muslims.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (known as MBS) announced in 2017 that Saudi Arabia would follow a more moderate form of Islam rather than the strict Wahhabism to which the monarchy had subscribed (Wahhabism is a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam). However, expatriate Christians (mainly migrant workers from India, the Philippines and Africa) are still not permitted to worship in public.
Christians in Saudi Arabia
Expatriate Christians are officially permitted to meet in private, but the mutawaah sometimes raid their meetings. They face arrest, imprisonment, torture and deportation – many expatriate Christians have been deported in recent years. Migrant workers from countries such as Ethiopia, India and the Philippines are often targeted due to the low levels of protest from their governments.
On Sunday 2 December 2018, Saudi Arabia hosted its first Coptic Orthodox mass. It was held in a home in Riyadh and led by Bishop Anba Markos, Metropolitan of Shoubra al-Kheima, Cairo, following an invitation from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March. Anba Markos had previously made three pastoral visits to Saudi Arabia since 2012. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have a close economic relationship and, according to a 2017 report, most of the 9.5 million Egyptians working abroad live in Saudi Arabia.
While most Christians in Saudi Arabia are migrant workers or expatriates, there is also a small number of Saudi Christians who are converts from Islam. They must practise their faith in extreme secrecy.
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.
(Aleteia/BBC News/Church in Chains Global Guide/International Christian Concern/Open Doors World Watch List/Premier Christian Radio)
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.
On 8 February 2013 the Mutawa (Saudi religious police) arrested 53 Ethiopian Christians at a worship service in the rented home of one of them in Dammam, the capital of the Eastern Province.
On 1 August 2012 Saudi Arabia deported the last of the 35 Ethiopian Christians who had been detained for holding an all-night prayer vigil in December 2011.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti (the highest official of religious law) has stated that it is “necessary to destroy all the churches” in the Arabian Peninsula.
On 15 December 2011, 35 Ethiopian Christians working in Saudi Arabia were arrested and detained by the religious police for holding a private prayer meeting in Jeddah. The six men and 29 women are being held in Jeddah’s Briman prison.