Saudi Arabia’s official religious police were ordered to conduct their affairs with “gentleness and lenience” in a new directive issued in the capital, Riyadh, last week.
While most "offenders" will be Muslims transgressing in dress or behaviour, some two million expatriate Christians thought to be living in Saudi Arabia - many from Asian countries such as the Philippines and India employed as domestic workers and technicians - can attract the attention of the religious police.
Saudi Arabia’s strict application of Islam prohibits Christians from displaying any signs of their faith or religious identity in public, including worship services.
Its religious police, or ‘Haia,’ known as the Commission responsible for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), is named from a direct quotation from the Qur'an. It requires all living under Saudi jurisdiction to abide by its interpretation of Islam’s rules and its prophet’s directives.
Under changes approved by the Saudi cabinet on 11 April, religious officers will no longer be allowed to detain anyone. Instead, they must report violators to police or drug-squad officers, the official Saudi Press Agency says.
"Neither the heads nor members of the Haia are to stop or arrest or chase people, or ask for their IDs or follow them; that is considered the jurisdiction of the police or the drug unit,” it says.
It is unclear if the new order will mean a total scrapping of the religious police’s sweeping powers, which have been anchored in a historic alliance between the ruling House of Saud and the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam.
The desert kingdom, which hosts Islam’s sacred shrines in Mecca and Medina, forces all women to follow its own dress code and segregation of the sexes.
“There are no church buildings at all in Saudi Arabia and Christian services take place in compounds or at home. Although the government formally recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship in private, the religious police often do not respect this right,” says Open Doors International (ODI), an organisation focused on Christians under pressure around the world.
The Saudi government had promised in July 2006 that it would stop interfering with the private worship of non-Muslims, who are considered "infidels" by the official religious establishment.
As Nina Shea, director of the Washington-based Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, points out: "There are over two million Christian foreign workers in that country. Those victimized are typically poor, from Asian and African countries with weak governments."
"It all depends on whether and how this decision is implemented,” says Henriette Kats, researcher with ODI’s World Watch Unit, about this latest directive.
“The religious police could, for example, inform the regular police officers if they discover a meeting of Christian migrants, and the result would be the same. In that case, this decision is only cosmetic.”
Until now, the religious police have been tasked to enforce all the rules and physically reprimand perceived trespassers.
The ‘Haia’, which reports to the King and is not subject to judicial review, has recently come under increased international scrutiny.
In its 2015 annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted that agents of the Haia have been accused of “beating, whipping, detaining, and otherwise harassing individuals”.
Despite a law in 2013 limiting the jurisdiction of the CPVPV, members of the Saudi religious CPVPV continued to “periodically overstep their authority in parts of the country” in 2014, said USCIRF, calling for the its dissolution.
Other areas of Saudi activity are also the focus of international criticism, including a law in February 2014 criminalising criticism of Islam as "terrorism", as well as older Saudi textbooks, which continue to promote hatred against non-believers.
Although the country’s youth and more liberal-leaning citizens may welcome with relief any real relaxing of the establishment’s draconian laws, this change is likely to raise the ire of conservative segments, who continue to be drastically opposed to change.
Meanwhile, the situation for Christians continues to be more complex. According to ODI, Christians face ongoing pressure in all spheres of life in the Kingdom.
“Converts from Islam cannot openly practise their faith. Any impression to those around them that they might be Christians can have serious consequences,” says ODI.
Saudi Arabia forbids conversion from Islam and, in line with Sharia, punishes "apostasy" with death.
Even when held privately, Christian services are seriously restricted by the strict gender segregation, prohibiting men and women from different families to worship in the same room. “Christians who engage in such activities risk arrest, imprisonment, lashing, deportation, and sometimes torture,” adds ODI.
For instance, in September 2014, the CPVPV arrested 27 men, women and children of various Asian nationalities in the eastern city of Khafji. They seized copies of the Bible and various musical instruments from the Christian families, who had gathered to worship in a home.
An article posted on the Arabic-language news website, Akhbar 24, said the arrests came after the Kingdom's religious police got a tip about a home-based church. The report further noted that “distorted writings of the Bible were found and musical instruments, noting their referral to the jurisdictional institutions.”
In December 2011, 35 Ethiopian Christians, mostly women, were arrested and subjected to “arbitrary body cavity searches in custody” after their private prayer gathering was raided in Jeddah, Human Rights Watch reported.