Saudi Arabia Cracks Down On Christians In Jeddah

Jerusalem ( - America's strongest Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia has been cracking down on religious freedoms, watchdog organizations said after two Christians residing and working there were arrested recently for reasons related to their faith.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has been lax in dealing with these abuses, several organizations have charged.

Rev. Steven Snyder, president of the International Christian Concern, a Washington-based human rights organization, charged that the Saudi government is infringing on the rights of Christians to practice their faith and said only Muslims are allowed to practice their religion in the country.

"It appears that the Saudi authorities are extremely paranoid about protecting Islam in their country," Snyder said in a telephone interview.

However, there should be no restrictions on anyone who wants to practice their faith. These people are being treated as criminals and drug dealers, he added.

Eskinder Menghis, an Ethiopian working in Saudi Arabia was arrested a week ago in a midnight raid on his home. Bibles, books, family photos, video and audiotapes were confiscated from his home, according to the ICC and other organizations.

A week earlier, Prabhu Isaac, a Christian hospital worker who had lived in the country for 10 years with his wife, was arrested under similar circumstances, dragged from his home in the middle of the night, by the Muttawa, religious police.

Isaac's arrest apparently stemmed from a gathering of some 400 people in June at which the group reportedly sang hymns and listened to a sermon at a private gathering.

Among Isaac's belongings, which were seized at the time of his arrest, was his computer. On it were the names and addresses of some 29 other Christians in the country. One of those names was that of Menghis.

It is not clear where Menghis is at this time. Isaac is reportedly being held in the Farifia prison outside of Jeddah, but has not been allowed any contact with his Indian Embassy.

Other Christians in the country are now fearful that they too, might be arrested.

One-third of the population of Saudi Arabia is foreign workers, many of whom are Christians from the Philippines, India, North Korea and elsewhere. They are not permitted to display any Christian symbols or Bibles, nor are they allowed to meet together publicly to worship or pray. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia.

There are some 600,000 Roman Catholics in the country, for instance, who for the entire length of their stay, which can be years, never see a priest and can't receive a sacrament.

According to the ICC, some Christians have reported that upon entering the country their personal Bibles were taken away and placed into a paper shredder before their eyes.

Nina Shea, director of the Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom, said that previously the Saudis had a policy of deporting Christians caught practicing their faith illegally. But with the arrests of Menghis and Isaac, watchdog organizations are worried that the desert kingdom may be tightening its grip on religious freedoms.

"We're concerned that this is a shift in policy," Shea said by telephone. She noted that the only Christians in the country are foreigners.

"Citizens [of Saudi Arabia] are not allowed to be Christians, [henceforth] there are no known Saudi citizens who are Christians," Shea added.

Negligent U.S. Response

In addition to the arrest of the Christians, the lack of any U.S. measures to counter the flagrant human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia has been dismaying, Snyder said in a press release.

"It is time we stood up for the values we believe are 'self evident' or otherwise be prepared to face the fact that one day we too will have to surrender our own rights to the oppressors," he added.

The U.S. government has been slow to take measures against the oil-rich kingdom's violation of religious freedoms, agreed Steven McFarland, executive director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The federal government commission, created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, monitors religious freedom worldwide and advises the president, the secretary of state and Congress on how best to promote it.

According to the State Department's report last year on International Religious Freedom, "Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy without constitutional protection for freedom of religion, and such protection does not exist in practice."

For the past two years, the USCIRF recommended to the previous administration of former President Bill Clinton that Saudi Arabia be designated on the list of "countries of particular concern," but the recommendation was ignored, McFarland said in a telephone interview.

"The failure of the past administration to name Saudi Arabia did significant damage to the truth-telling mandate of the law," he said.

This October will be the Bush administration's first opportunity to make a decision on whether or not to place Saudi Arabia on the CPC list.

A nation is designated as a "country of particular concern" based on what is defined as a "systematic, ongoing and egregious" violation of religious freedoms. Countries already on that list include China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar and Sudan.

Once a country is placed on the CPC list the president is responsible to report to Congress and U.S. citizens about what action he intends to take.

There are 15 different grades of measures, which can be applied in the diplomatic, cultural and economic spheres ranging from a private diplomatic rebuke to a veto of international financial assistance. The president may also suggest other measures.

The president can also decide to waive any sanctions based on other U.S. interests that go beyond the human rights realm. It is at this point he can say the U.S. can't afford to offend Saudi Arabia, McFarland said.