Saudi Arabia releases Christian leaders

Fourteen expatriate Christians held by Saudi Arabian authorities in Jeddah since last summer were released this week, according to a U.S. monitor of religious persecution.

Nine were freed on Christmas Eve and five on Christmas Day, said Washington, D.C.-based International Christian Concern. The advocacy group did not say why authorities released the foreign workers, who came from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Eritrea and India.

The Saudi Ministry of Interior arrested the men after receiving reports in June of their participation in Christian gatherings that included Saudi converts to Christianity. Saudi law applies the death penalty to citizens who choose to abandon Islam.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia bars all public expression of religion apart from Islam. Saudi officials have stated that non-Muslims may worship in private homes, but many house-church leaders have been arrested and deported, human rights groups say. An estimated 15,000 foreign Christians worship in homes across the country.

The men had been employed in Saudi Arabia for several years, International Christian Concern said. If precedent is followed, they will be deported.

Investigation of nine of the Christians began with a citizen's complaint about the presence of a Saudi national at a June 2 farewell party held at a public hall in Jeddah. A group of expatriate Christians were honoring an Indian colleague, Prabhu Isaac, who was considered a leader among the house churches.

Saudi religious police arrested Isaac on July 19 and handed him over to the Ministry of Interior. Six days later, authorities arrested Iskander Menghis, a Christian from Eritrea whose name was found on Isaac's computer. The two men reportedly succumbed to harsh interrogation and revealed the names of church leaders in Jeddah, leading to more arrests in August and September.

The men released with Isaac and Menghis, according to ICC, are Tinsaie Gizachew, Gebeyehu Tefera, Baharu Mengistu, Beferdu Fikre, Teshome Kebret and Mubarek Hussain Keder of Ethiopia; an Ethiopian identified only as Worku; Kebrom Haile and Joseph Girmaye of Eritrea; Afobunor Okey Buliamin of Nigeria; and Dennis Morello of the Philippines. Authorities also freed Genet Haileab, whose country was not identified.

Interrogators beat Buliamin and two unidentified Ethiopians, ICC said, but they treated the others well.

In its most recent country-by-country report on treatment of religious believers, the U.S. State Department said "freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia. However, groups that lobby Washington on behalf of persecuted Christians say the kingdom's political and economic importance softens the U.S. government's response.

An independent panel established by Congress in 1998 to promote religious freedom as a U.S. policy goal recommended to Secretary of State Colin Powell in August that Saudi Arabia be designated as a "country of particular concern." That nomination, by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, is reserved for countries that engage in "egregious, systematic, and ongoing violations of religious freedom." Saudi Arabia did not make the State Department's list, however.

Designation as a "country of particular concern" subjects a nation to U.S. diplomatic and economic actions.