Saudi Arabia: 7 of jailed Christians released

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Seven Christians who had been under arrest for their faith were freed this afternoon. The condition for their release was to sign a renunciation to religious practice, which they had been carrying out privately in their homes, as permitted by law.

Of the 7 released, 6 were part of the group of Protestants (8 in all) who had been arrested last May 28 in an extensive raid carried out by the Muttawa (religious police) in Riyadh. The other is Samkutty Varghese, another Indian Protestant, in jail since March: the police had used his address book to track down the other Christians.

According AsiaNews sources close to Mr Kumar, one of the released prisoners, their release took place today, June 8, around 3:30 p.m. local time, after having signed a document in which they renounced to the prayer sessions and religious practices that they had been carrying out for some time in their homes.

On May 28, the religious police raided a private prayer gathering of Protestant groups in the Batha area of the Saudi capital. Later that day, at 8 pm, the police arrived at Mr Kumar’s home and interrogated him and his wife. They then took away all religious material found in the residence, the family computers and Mr Kumar himself. More or less the same method was used to make the other arrests all in the same day.

Vijay Kumar has been in Saudi Arabia since 1994 working in production control for Al Salam Aircraft. His home has been a gathering place for Christians since 2002. In Saudi Arabia, freedom of expression is banned for all religions but Islam. Every public expression of other faiths (holding a Bible, wearing a cross or a rosary, praying) is outlawed. The religious police, which has a reputation for being uncompromising and violent, remorselessly enforces the ban. In the last few years, international pressures have forced the Saudi royal family to allow non-Muslim to practice their religion at least in the privacy of the home. None the less, the Muttawa continues to arrest, imprison and torture people who practice another faith even if privately.

Local sources refer to telephone calls from the prison according to which "the first 3 days were the worst" for the Christian prisoners, who were subjected to all kinds of abuse. Then, "when the 8 were divided into different cells, things went better." Two other Christians are still being held in jail by police for "further investigations."

Four of the released have been repatriated to India, while Kumar is waiting to know what the future holds for him and his family. The decision will be made by his employer, in agreement with Saudi authorities, by the end of the week. The hope is, according to the same sources close to Kumar, that he be allowed to stay in Riyadh: "There is nothing for him and his loved ones in India at the moment and finding a new job would not be easy."