Christians detained for illegal praying in Saudi Arabia

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi Arabia has detained 40 Pakistani Christians for holding prayers at a house in the Muslim kingdom, where practicing any religion other than Islam is illegal, newspapers said yesterday.

A group of men, women and children were attending the service in the capital Riyadh when police raided the house, Al Jazirah newspaper said.

It said authorities also found Christian tapes and books.

Another Saudi daily, Al Yaum, said the raid took place on Friday while a Pakistani preacher was delivering a sermon. It was not clear what measures might be taken against the group.

Saudi authorities were not immediately available to comment.

There are about 6 million foreigners in the kingdom, including many Christians from Europe, North America, Asia and other Arab states. The kingdom has a population of about 23 million.

In a rare official rebuke of a close ally last year, Washington accused Saudi Arabia of severe violations of religious freedom.

"Freedom of religion is not recognized or protected under the country's laws, and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam," the State Department said in an annual report.

Following the September 11, attacks, which were carried out by mainly Saudis, the Gulf Arab state's religious establishment came under sharp criticism by the West for fostering militancy and intolerance of other religions.