By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (BosNewsLife)– Two Indian Christians of a thriving Pentecostal house church in Saudi Arabia were back in their home country Sunday, July 24, after they were unexpectedly released by Saudi officials from an overcrowded prison, a church official confirmed to BosNewsLife.
Vasantha Sekhar Vara, 28, and Nese Yohan, 31, who are members of the Riyadh-based ‘Rejoice in the Church of the Lord’ congregation, were detained in January while organizing a Bible study group in one of the apartments where their 70-strong church of mainly Indian expat workers gathered, BosNewsLife reported earlier.
Both devoted believers soon received 45-days of “pre-trial detention” on charges of attempted Christian conversion, also known as “proselytizing”, the church said.
They were later moved from the police station to a notorious central jail in Riyadh, the capital, where they were held for months without trial, BosNewsLife learned.
Yet, “On July 12 they were released by authorities and send back to India,” said a church elder, whose name is known to BosNewsLife news agency. BosNewsLife did not identify the official, citing security concerns as his church has come under pressure to halt its services. Additionally, homes of church members have also been raided by Saudi security forces, according to a witness and pictures seen by a BosNewsLife reporter.
It was not immediately clear if and when the released men would receive back personal belongings. “Saudi religious police and other police also confiscated Bibles and other christian literature as well as the church’s sound installation and instruments, such as guitars, during the [January] raid,” the elder explained recently in one of several conversations.
“They even broke furniture, suit cases, and painted what I believe were Koran verses on the walls” of the apartment where the church met, he added. However, the elder called their release “a happy end” and “a result of prayers”, after BosNewsLife was approached by the church to publish their case. “The world should know about their plight,” the elder said earlier this year. “Praise the Lord, God gives us victory,” he added this weekend.
Their freedom followed often difficult and frustrating negotiations, BosNewsLife established in recent months. Those involved in the talks described how the Christian men were “crying when we met each other in the prison facility.”
The elder said in an interview with BosNewsLife that the Christians had been forbidden to openly pray or read the Bible. “Our brothers’ head hair was shaved and they looked very thin.” He said they didn’t receive enough food. Yohan was reportedly coughing amid concerns about Tuberculosis, but he was allegedly denied medical treatment.
For months, the church official said, the two young men could barely sleep in the overcrowded jail. They were “the only known Christians there imprisoned for their faith,” in the detention facility. “The other inmates are criminals.”
In India, Vara’s pastor, Ajay Kuma Jeldi, explained earlier that Vara had told him by telephone that he had been pressured in prison to convert to Islam, but had refused. “If I have to die for my God, I will die for him here,” Vara reportedly said.
The return to India ended a long wait for families back in India, who the elder said were “very concerned about our brothers.”
Pentecostal church members are often referred to as “brothers” or “sisters” in reference to Biblical teaching that those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are children of God, the Heavenly Father.
Despite threats of new arrests, the church elder said his congregation continues worshiping in different locations, and even baptizes new believers. “We have to continue to praise the Lord, what else can we do? This is a lively church. There is also an interest among people of other religions to attend our services.”
Rights groups say Saudi Arabia, a strict Islamic nation, has a long history of cracking down on Christians. In 2004, 28 Indian workers were reportedly arrested for practicing Christianity. The charges were eventually dropped, but in 2010 brought up again leading to the deportation of one worker, while another person was arrested, according to rights investigators.
In another case, 16 Indian workers were allegedly arrested in February 2008, and then released after three days. In 2010, eight left the country of their own accord and three of the remaining eight were reportedly issued deportation orders and expelled.
Saudi authorities have denied human rights abuses and recently urged political activists not to repeat pro-democracy demonstrations that have engulfed other Arabic nations.
The Middle East nation of over 26 million people is officially 100 percent Muslim, but as in other Arabic countries, there have been reports of a growing interest in Christianity in Saudi Arabia, where many foreigners are Christians.