Christian prisoner in Mecca feared dead

An Ethiopian imprisoned by Saudi authorities for his Christian activities is feared dead, according to relatives who have not heard from him in more than six weeks.

Friends suspect Worku Aweke's former Muslim name may have caused the Saudis to believe he converted from Islam to Christianity and therefore was subject to the death penalty under Islamic law, said Washington, D.C.-based International Christian Concern.

Aweke was among 14 foreigners who were arrested last summer by Saudi Arabia after reports of their participation in Christian gatherings that included Saudi converts to Christianity. None of the Christians were formally charged, however. The others have been deported, with the exception of Filipino Dennis Moreno.

Aweke officially changed his name to Ismail Abubakr several years ago, possibly as a means of obtaining work in Saudi Arabia, said ICC. He became a Christian just two months prior to his arrest.

The Ethiopian guest worker's friends suspect three possible scenarios: He has been coerced under torture to “reconvert” to Islam, has died from the injuries he suffered during interrogations or has been killed as an "apostate," ICC said.

ICC representative Axel Sippach told WorldNetDaily that when he confronted a Saudi embassy official in January about the Christian prisoners and their treatment he was rebuffed.

According to Sippach, Acting Ambassador Al-Gain at first denied knowing anything, then said angrily, "When you release our prisoners here, we'll release your prisoners there!"

Al-Gain abruptly hung up the phone. Sippach believes the ambassador was referring to Saudis detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who are linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Aweke originally was incarcerated at Terahyl Deportation Prison in Jeddah. When authorities transferred the other Christians on Jan. 11 to Breman Deportation Prison near the Jeddah airport, Aweke was moved to the Matta Jail in Mecca in order to "settle his affairs."

Three other Ethiopian Christians claimed in January they were severely beaten and tormented under the authority of a Saudi prison official in Jeddah.

"Being suspended with chains, each of us were flogged 80 times with a flexible metal cable and also severely kicked and beaten with anything that came into their hands," said a letter from the Ethiopians obtained by ICC. "This was witnessed by over 1,000 deportees."

An expose by the London Guardian earlier this year found evidence of Saudi torture practices, including systematic beatings and sleep deprivation. On Tuesday, the Guardian noted a documentary broadcast that evening on Britain's Channel 4 that "uncovered evidence that dozens of suspected Christians were detained and tortured in Saudi Arabia during the last 18 months."

The Channel 4 program showed drawings smuggled out of jail that "depict the Christians being lashed by prison guards, who urged them to confess to being priests and to convert to Islam," the Guardian said.

Channel 4 reported one released prisoner claiming he was subjected to sleep deprivation and another who said Filipino prisoners have been killed by guards.

Sippach said the response of U.S. officials to his lobby effort on behalf of the Christians has been "very, very disappointing."

"There was hope up until 9-11 that there would be involvement from some of our officials," he said, "but after 9-11 it seemed that everybody needed to tiptoe around the Saudis."

Sippach believes the greatest threat of terrorism in the U.S. in the next 12 to 24 months comes from terrorists raised and financed from Saudi Arabia, noting the nationality of the vast majority of detainees in Guantanamo and of 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.

"Our president, who I respect very much - I think he's doing an excellent job, has proclaimed Iraq, North Korea and Iran as the axis of evil, but the country that should have been on the top of the list is Saudi Arabia," he said.

The Saudis are trying to live in two worlds, Sippach maintains.

"On one hand they want to operate as part of the international community and join the WTO and be viewed as international playing partners," he said. "But on the other they want to maintain a closed country where they can do behind closed doors whatever they want."