By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewslife’s Stefan J. Bos
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (BosNewsLife)– Dozens of Ethiopian Christians remained imprisoned in Saudi Arabia Wednesday, June 13, nearly half a year after police raided their private prayer gathering and officials of the restrictive Islamic nation have given conflicting reasons why they were detained, rights activists said.
The 35 Christians, including 29 women, were initially told they would face deportation for “illicit mingling of genders” but recently officials reportedly changed the explanation saying there were “visa issues” or they had been “involved in both drug and human trafficking” or just “some form of smuggling ring.”
U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC) told BosNewsLife it learned that the conflicting statements were made in separate talks between U.S. Congressional offices and the Saudi embassy in Washington D.C.
One of the prisoners reported feeling “very sad, and very surprised” at the constantly changing allegations.
“Why haven’t they brought us to court? Why don’t they show us some evidence and bring charges against us?” the unidentified prisoner was quoted as saying in a statement distributed by ICC. “[We feel like] the Saudis are trying to punish us for being Christians by keeping us in prison.”
The group was detained December 15 in a private home in the coastal city of Jeddah where they gathered to pray ahead of Christmas in the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom which bans the practice of any religious rites except those of Islam.
ICC, which has been in contact with U.S. senators, representatives and their staff to raise awareness about the case, said the Saudi ambassador indicated to American delegates that the Christians were detained amid “an investigation” into a “large scale human smuggling ring”.
Yet, another Saudi representative was quoted as telling U.S. Congress offices that the Ethiopian Christians had been “arrested for having issues with their work permits”.
After ICC provided a list of prisoners with legal work permit numbers, the Saudi official allegedly said the believers “were involved in both drug and human trafficking.”
Finally, “on May 21, in a meet ing with staff members from multiple Congressional offices, representatives from the Saudi government said that the 35 Christians had been arrested for visa issues, but that they were also involved in some form of smuggling ring,” ICC told BosNewsLife.
“I continue to be baffled by the inability of the Saudi government to explain exactly why 35 Christians attending a prayer service at a private home were suddenly arrested almost six months ago,” added ICC’s Advocacy Officer Ryan Morgan.
“The story keeps changing” after the initial charge of “illicit mingling of genders”, he explained. “It is very troubling to think that a key U.S. ally in the Middle East may be lying to U.S. government officials about why they are arresting religious minorities.”
News of the controversy surrounding their imprisonment comes amid concerns over possible mistreatment.
The international Human Rights Watch (HRW) group said recently the women were subjected to “unwarranted strip search” while the men were beaten and insulted as “unbelievers”.
Saudi officials had no comment.
“While King Abdullah sets up an international interfaith dialogue centre, his police are trampling on the rights of believers of others faiths,” said HRW senior Middle East researcher Christoph Wilcke.
“The Saudi government needs to change its own intolerant ways before it can promote religious dialogue abroad,” he added in a statement.
ICC said it has encouraged “interested individuals to call” the Saudi embassies in their countries and “express their concern at this alarming turn of events.”