(Photo: The Christian Post)
On a cold Tuesday morning, dozens of people demonstrated in front of the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Washington, D.C., to protest the Middle Eastern country's treatment of Ethiopian Christians.
Holding signs that read "Religious Freedom" and "King Abdullah: Free Illegally Detained Ethiopians," demonstrators shouted chants demanding that Christians in Saudi Arabia who had been imprisoned for their beliefs be released.
Dr. Kassa Ayalew, one of the organizers of the demonstration, told The Christian Post that the troubles Ethiopian Christians face in the Saudi Kingdom are not recent.
"The Saudi persecution of Christians has been going on for a long time," said Ayalew, adding that Tuesday's demonstration was part of "the struggle to expose the persecution, the oppression of freedom of exercise of religion" that non-Muslims endure in Saudi Arabia.
"The government should allow different people to have their religious rights respected in that country and the United States government should urge the Saudi government to release all of the people who are in jail for exercising their religious rights."
The event that triggered the protest and subsequent demonstrations was a police raid in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in which 35 Ethiopian Christians were arrested by the government during a prayer meeting held at a home on Dec. 15. According to International Christian Concern, treatment of those arrested has only gotten worse since the arrest.
"Our sources indicate they have been imprisoned without trial and have not been told when or if they will be released," ICC said in a statement.
"The women report that they were strip searched upon their arrest and that unsanitary conditions during the search have led to illnesses among some of the prisoners for which they are unable to obtain proper medical treatment."
Despite the challenges ahead, Ayalew told CP that he felt popular uprisings like the "Arab Spring" were gradually coming to Saudi Arabia and bringing forth reform efforts.
"We do believe that the Arab Spring will eventually reach Saudi Arabia," said Ayalew, who felt that the recent decision by the government to allow women to drive was a sign of progress.
Saudi Arabia is ranked by Open Doors as the third worst persecutor of Christians in the world.
"There is no freedom of religion here," Open Doors, a persecution watchdog, says. "The legal system is based on Islamic law and conversion to another religion is punishable by death if the accused does not recant. Non-Muslim public worship is prohibited, and although the government recognizes the right of non-Muslims to worship privately, the religious police often do not."
Ayalew said they "will have subsequent demonstrations in different places" including the State Department and Capitol Hill. The hope is to have the federal government "urge the Saudi government" to implement a "new regulation that allows other people to practice their freedom."
The protest on Tuesday was supported by International Christian Concern, an advocacy organization that focuses on persecution abroad and the local Ethiopian community.