Up to 10 Christians arrested in Saudi Arabia

ROME, Italy - As many as 10 Christians have been arrested in Saudi Arabia after throwing a party which included a talk about Christianity, a humanitarian group said Wednesday.

The arrests coincide with the detention in Afghanistan of eight foreigners and 16 Afghans accused by the hard-line Islamic Taliban authorities of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity -- a crime punishable by death according to strict Islamic sharia law.

Daniel Hoffman, the head of the Middle East Concern group, told Reuters as many as 10 Christians had been arrested in a police crackdown on non-Muslim activity in Jeddah.

"The first person to be arrested had been in Saudi Arabia for a long time and his contract had ended. His friends organized a farewell party for him, told people to bring friends along and invited an Indian evangelist," Hoffman said.

He confirmed an earlier report issued by the Catholic news agency Fides that Prabhu Isaac, the Indian who was due to leave Saudi Arabia, and an Eritrean Christian called Iskander Menghis had been arrested in mid-July.

"Police broke into (Isaac's) room, interrogated him for a long time and confiscated Bibles, hymn books and a computer which held data on Christians in other cities," Fides said.

Saudi Arabia bans public displays of all faiths other than Islam. There are no non-Muslim places of worship in the country, which is home to two of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

Hoffman said Menghis had told police that a Saudi Arabian had been at the party, prompting them to round up at least seven other Christians to try to find out who the Saudi was.

In 1998, Saudi police briefly jailed 12 Filipino Christians for proselytizing and handing out copies of the Bible in Arabic. They were later deported.

In addition to Isaac and Menghis, Fides said police had named Ethiopian Baharu Mengistu, Tinsae Gizachew from Eritrea and Nigerian Afobunor Okey Buliamin as having been arrested. The others had not been identified.

16:10 08-29-01