WASHINGTON (BP) -- America's congressionally approved watchdog for global religious liberty has called on Saudi Arabia to release 35 Ethiopian Christians arrested during a prayer meeting and imprisoned for nearly two months.
Saudi police raided a private home in Jeddah Dec. 15 and arrested the 29 women and six men gathered to pray, according to International Christian Concern reported.
There have been reports that the Christians -- some who have lived in Saudi Arabia for as many as 16 years -- will be deported to Ethiopia. In a Feb. 7 phone interview, some of the prisoners told ICC they had not been informed they would be released, according to the organization, which aids persecuted Christians overseas.
The bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged the Ethiopians' release. "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," USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a Feb. 2 written statement.
Saudi authorities have charged the Ethiopians with "mixing with the opposite sex," Christian leaders told International Christian Concern. Saudi Arabian law prohibits males and females who are not members of the same family from being in the same room, ICC reported.
"The Saudi officials are accusing the Christians of committing the crime of mixing of sexes because if they charge them with meeting for practicing Christianity, they will come under pressure from the international human rights organizations as well as Western countries," a Saudi Christian leader told ICC. "In fact, when an employer of one of the detainees asked for the reason for their employee's arrest, the Saudi official told him that it was for practicing Christianity."
Saudi officials strip-searched the women, including searches of their body cavities, and physically abused the men, some of the Ethiopians told ICC in a phone conversation from prison.
A Muslim preacher came Feb. 7 to the prison at authorities' behest to seek to convert the Christians to Islam, according to ICC.
"The Muslim preacher vilified Christianity, denigrated the Bible and told us that Islam is the only true religion," a female prisoner told ICC by phone. "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."
The U.S. State Department has designated Saudi Arabia as a "country of particular concern" since 2004. That designation is reserved for the world's worst violators of religious liberty.
Saudi Arabia bars all public expressions of religious belief other than an interpretation of Islam referred to as Wahhabism. It also prohibits all non-Muslim houses of worship.
Since 2006, the Saudi government has said it permits worship held privately in house churches, but it is "amply clear" that is untrue, two religious freedom advocates said Feb. 8.
USCIRF Commissioner Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, and Jonathan Racho, an ICC regional manager, cited a 2008 report by the State Department and some specific examples to demonstrate people involved in non-public worship services are threatened.
Writing for National Review Online, they pointed to:
-- the detention of 150 Roman Catholics in 2010 for participating in an underground mass.
-- the arrest and six-month imprisonment in 2011 of two Indian Christians taking part in a prayer meeting in a private home.
In Saudi Arabia, according to Shea and Racho, 1 million or more Christians are among 6 or 7 million foreign workers in the Mideast country.
Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, should intercede for the Ethiopian Christians, Shea and Racho said, noting, "The Saudi practices of arresting, detaining and abusing Christians for practicing their faith and pressing them in jail to renounce Christianity must be brought into the open."