Christian Faith Still Harshly Suppressed in Saudi Arabia

NEW DELHI, India — “Freedom of religion does not exist. It is not recognized or protected under the country's laws,” says the State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2004, released Sept. 15.

This indictment is not a reference to religious freedom in communist China or North Korea, but to the oppressive state of affairs under which 2 million non-Muslim expatriates make a living in the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia is a heaven for Muslims only, and for other religious groups, it is a hell. There was no recourse to practical Christian religious life,” recounts Babu Neelankavil, an Indian Catholic who migrated to England last month with his family after eight years of what he calls “religious slavery” in Saudi Arabia.

A devout Catholic, the 40-year-old computer professional always wore a chain with a cross but gave it up in 1996 before he took a flight to the Islamic nation on the advice of his Catholic wife, who was working as a nurse in a Riyadh hospital.

“Free from bondage” is how Neelankavil sums up his “new freedom” in England. All through his stay in Saudi Arabia — perhaps the only nation in the world without a recognized Christian church building — his three children never attended a Mass except when they went for holidays to their native Kerala in south India.

In fact, in the Muslim-majority nation with 24 million people — a quarter of them expatriates, including an estimated 1 million Christians — only Sunni Muslims have state sanction. Besides banning non-Islamic places of worship, the Saudis do not grant visas to ministers of other faiths, let alone permit them to conduct religious ceremonies inside the “holy land” of Islam.

Attempts by devout Christians and others to covertly import Bibles, rosaries and other religious articles, even recorded cassettes for personal use, have landed many in trouble at the airport. The Mutawwa'in (religious police) regularly quiz arriving passengers on their religious identity and sometimes rigorously screen their baggage — not to look for banned drugs but non-Islamic religious articles.

Though Saudi officials regularly proclaim that “religious tolerance and freedom” exist in the country for private religious practices, Neelankavil countered that “the Mutawwa'in will not permit you to practice it even in your home.”

Brian's Story

Indeed, though some Christians do arrange small prayer meetings at home in secret, there are numerous instances when those attending have been taken into custody by the religious police.

Such an act of faith may have kept Brian Savio O'Connor, an Indian Catholic, behind bars in Saudi Arabia since March of this year. O'Connor has been charged with “preaching” Christianity (and possessing liquor) and has been incarcerated and reportedly tortured repeatedly. The Saudi government has refused to respond to pleas for his release by Christian groups from India and abroad.

“We request His Majesty to take appropriate steps to see that the religious police stop the torture, and that Brian is given a fair trial and released,” John Dayal, a leading Catholic activist in India, wrote to King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al Said in early June.

However, the Saudi government has not replied or acknowledged pleas for the release of O'Connor, who allegedly has been brutally tortured in prison, with his legs chained and hung from the ceiling. According to those who visited him in detention, O'Connor has been threatened with death unless he renounces his faith.

“It is nearly four months since I wrote to them. But there has been no reply yet,” said Dayal, who last month was elected president of the All India Catholic Union, the official lay network recognized by the Indian bishops’ conference.

Apart from Dayal, several Italian and U.S. groups — including Washington-based Freedom House — have lobbied Secretary of State Colin Powell and other international leaders to press for O'Connor's release, but the Saudi regime has not moved.

The Rome-based Catholic news service Asia News has reported several cases like that of O'Connor in which Christians have been arrested and persecuted for trying to practice their faith privately. In April 2001, for example, two people from the Philippines were jailed for a month, suffering severe torture during the detention, for holding a prayer meeting inside their house. Another Filipino was executed for organizing a clandestine Mass inside a house, Asia News reported in June.

Though Saudi policy is “to allow non-Muslim foreigners to worship privately,” the State Department's 2004 Report on International Religious Freedom points out that this policy “lacks clarity” and leads to “inconsistent enforcement” by the overzealous religious police.

The most recent report noted that those detained for non-Muslim worship often are deported after lengthy trials and given lashes as punishment. It also cited the instance of an Ethiopian Christian who was deported in 2003 after an employment dispute led to investigation of his religious activities.

Besides elaborating on O'Connor's detention, the State Department cites another case in February in which a Christian was deported for providing an Arabic Bible to a citizen.

“In certain areas, both the Mutawwa'in and religious vigilantes acting on their own harassed, assaulted, battered, arrested and detained citizens and foreigners,” the report stated. “The Government requires the Mutawwa'in to follow established procedures and to offer instruction in a polite manner; however, Mutawwa'in did not always comply with the requirements.”

While the Saudi government has admitted “inappropriate conduct” by some Mutawwa'in, the International Religious Freedom Report noted that the government has “refused to provide information on the number of reported incidents or disciplinary actions.”

Catacomb Church

“The Church in Saudi Arabia is a catacomb church, an image that accurately describes the situation in which Christians live: no freedoms, absolute silence and total concealment,” Bishop Paul Hinder, auxiliary bishop of the apostolic vicariate of Arabia, told Asia News.

Added Bishop Hinder, “All that the Church can do is help the underground communities live their faith in silence and secret.”

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi, India.