SAUDI ARABIA: 53 Ethiopian Christians arrested at private worship service

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.

According to a close relative of one of the Christians, the 46 women and six men – including three church leaders – were arrested at about 10 am, and the three church leaders – two women and one man – were produced in an Islamic court in Dammam the same day. The authorities alleged that they were converting Muslims to Christianity. Two of the Christians who have residential permits are likely to be released, and it is expected that the others will be deported.

Dammam is a large metropolitan, industrial area, a major seaport and a commercial centre for the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. It is rich in oil and natural gas. The numerous visitors or expatriates in the region are not granted religious freedom. The Saudi government claims that its policy is to allow foreign workers to worship privately in their homes, but this right is not defined in law, and in practice the Mutawa hunt out and punish Christians praying together privately; the only safe place is within Western walled compounds.

“We call on Saudi authorities to treat all those arrested with dignity, and release them immediately as there is apparently no evidence for any offence against them,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, Executive Director of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. “Arrest of believers for peacefully gathering for worship goes against the spirit of Saudi Arabia’s promotion of inter-religious dialogue in international fora.”

Ethiopian Christians arrested in December 2011

In December 2011, the Saudi police raided a private prayer vigil in Jeddah and arrested 35 Ethiopian Christians. During their imprisonment they were pressurised to become Muslims, and the women were subjected to arbitrary body cavity searches. Eventually the Christians were deported in 2012, the last of them on 1 August.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2012 annual report noted that the Saudi government had failed to implement a number of promised reforms related to promoting freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. The report stated, “The Saudi government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government’s own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam; prohibits churches, synagogues, temples, and other non-Muslim places of worship; uses in its schools and posts online state textbooks that continue to espouse intolerance and incite violence; and periodically interferes with private religious practice.”