A group of 35 Ethiopian Christians arrested in Saudi Arabia last year for holding a midnight vigil at a private home were deported earlier this week, and some of them claim they were apprehended simply because Saudi officials "hate" non-Muslims.
"We have arrived home safe," one Christian shared with the International Christian Concern (ICC), an persecution watchdog. "We believe that we are released as the result of the pressure exerted by ICC and others. The Saudi officials don't tolerate any other religions other than Islam. They consider non-Muslims as unbelievers. They are full of hatred towards non-Muslims.'
According to reports, the Ethiopians had been living and working in Saudi Arabia for the past 15 years, but were placed in jail after police raided a private home and arrested 29 women and six men. Although they charged them with breaking the country's law of forbidding unrelated men and women from meeting in the same room, an anonymous church leader in Saudi Arabia said that the real reason behind the raid was to crack down on Christian practice.
"The Saudi officials are accusing the Christians of committing the crime of mixing of sexes," the church leader explained, "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. In fact, when an employer of one of the detainees asked the reason for their employee's arrest, the Saudi official told him that it was for practicing Christianity."
During the eight months the prisoners were held behind bars, the ICC claims they had been harassed, abused, and pressured into converting into Islam.
"The Muslim preacher vilified Christianity, denigrated the Bible and told us that Islam is the only true religion," one of the women said. "The preacher told us to convert to Islam."
She added that "when the preacher asked us, we didn't deny ... our Christian faith."
Afterwards, conflicting reports came out from Saudi Arabia as to the reason why the Christians were arrested, with one version even saying that they had been placed under arrest over problems with their work permits.
The ICC, however, looked into the situation and concluded: "on May 21st, in a meeting 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. When pressed for specifics, the Saudi officials reportedly demurred and changed the topic."
Other former prisoners who have spoken out about the situation have accused the Saudi Arabian government of not giving them a fair trial and not being honest about their intentions.
"Why don't they show us some evidence and bring charges against us? [We feel like] the Saudis are trying to punish us for being Christians by keeping us in prison," the person said.
Under the official Saudi Arabia law, non-Muslims are allowed to practice their religion in their homes, but there have been many reports similar to the Ethiopian Christians' case of what some observers regard as "utter disregard" for religious freedom in the country.
"The Saudis deceive the international community by pretending to promote tolerance among followers of different religious beliefs," said ICC spokesman Jonathan Racho. "However, in reality they don't tolerate any other religion besides Wahhabi Islam. The international community must pressure Saudi Arabia to respect religious freedom."