By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (BosNewsLife)– Some 35 Ethiopian Christians detained during a prayer meeting remained behind bars in Saudi Arabia Saturday, February 11, despite mounting international pressure on the Islamic nation to release them after nearly two months of imprisonment.
Saudi police raided a private home in the western city of Jeddah on December 15, detaining 29 women and six men gathered to pray, the imprisoned Christians said in comments monitored by BosNewsLife.
“They detained us because we were holding out weekly prayer meeting. We were praying at the time of our arrest,” said Helen Tamene Gebre, one of jailed women, in an interview with the Voice of America (VOA) network.
The bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged the Ethiopians’ release amid reports that the believers are pressured to recant their faith in Christ in exchange for freedom.
“Unless and until the Saudi government demonstrates some valid legal basis for imprisoning these individuals, they should immediately be set free and Saudi authorities should investigate allegations of physical abuse and degrading treatment by prison officials,” said USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo in a statement.
The call came as religious rights group International Christian Concern (ICC) said a Muslim preacher has visited the prison to pressure the Christians to accept Islam as the true religion.
He “vilified Christianity, denigrated the Bible and told us that Islam is the only true religion. The preacher told us to convert to Islam. When the preacher asked us, we didn’t deny about our Christian faith. I was so offended with her false teachings that I left the meeting,” one of the female prisoners was quoted
ICC said it had obtained the remarks in a telephone interview from Briman jail in Jeddah. Saudi officials had no known comments about the reported incident. BosNewsLife learned previously however that house meetings of foreign Christians have been raided by security forces in recent months.
The Muslim preacher allegedly said she was sent by officials “to teach the prisoners about Islam.”
ICC explained that it was the first time a Muslim preacher visited the prison where the Christians are held.
The Christian prisoner speaking to ICC, who was not identified amid security concerns, reportedly expressed fear that the teachings would incite Muslim prisoners held in Briman to harass and even attack Christians.
“Why don’t they release us? We want to go back to our country and worship freely,” she said.
International media reported that the Christian prisoners would be deported back to Ethiopia, but the inmates reportedly said they are “unaware of such a decision and do not know when or if they will be released.
The latest incident comes after alleged sexual abuse by Saudi Arabian security officials of the female prisoners on entry to the prison.
Helen Tamene Gebre said Saudi security officials took off the inmates’ underwear and inserted their fingers into the female prisoners’ genitals. BosNewsLife mentioned her name as she had agreed to identify herself publicly.
ICC representative Jonathan Racho told BosNewsLife that his group is “deeply concerned by the Saudi Arabian officials’ recent attempts to pressure the Christians into converting to Islam.”
He said his group has urged Saudi Arabia to release the Christians. “We urge Saudi Arabia to respect the right of these prisoners to follow the religion of their choice and to immediately release them.”