- (Photo: AP Images / Saudi Press Agency)
Saudi Arabia has sentenced two men to lashings and prison time for their part in helping a woman convert to Christianity and escape the country.
According to the Saudi Gazette, the Al-Khobar District Court sentenced one Lebanese man to six years in prison and 300 lashes, as well as one Saudi man to two years and 200 lashes for "brainwashing" the woman into Christianity and helping her escape.
Saudi Arabia, a heavily Muslim nation which was named as the second most oppressive country in the world by watchdog Open Doors USA, prohibits Muslims from abandoning their faith. It is also illegal to proselytize for other religions and to engage in public Christian worship.
Judges follow the Sharia code of Islamic law, and have the power to sentence people to death.
The two men, who apparently were colleagues with the woman at an insurance company, were charged last year after her family complained that they had "brainwashed" her and helped her escape to Bahrain after she turned to Christ. She currently lives in Sweden after being granted asylum, according to local press reports.
The woman's family has said that they only want her to return to them and that she will not be harmed, Saudi newspaper Al Youm reported.
"We want her to come home and be with her family. We have written a pledge that she would not be harmed," the woman's brother said. "Whoever claims otherwise is wrong. The condition of her mother is deteriorating every day she is away and the only cure is to see her daughter."
Reuters noted that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has been pushing for some religious reform since coming to the throne in 2005, and opened a center for religious dialogue in Vienna last year.
Hostile rhetoric against Christianity is still predominant in the Western Asian country, however. Last year, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, who is the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and the highest official of religious law in the Sunni country, said that it is "necessary to destroy all the churches" in the region.
His comments came during a meeting when Kuwait, another heavily Muslim country, was debating on legislation that proposed removing Christian churches and imposing Islamic law on the nation. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, Christians and other religions in Kuwait are currently allowed to build places of worship and gather in public for ceremonies.