Status of Detained Christians in Saudi Arabia Remains Uncertain

More than a week after 40 Christians were arrested in the strict Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, conflicting reports about the status of the detained Christians have resulted only in uncertainty.

"We don't know for sure" if the Pakistanis have been released, said Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House.

According to the New York Sun, Saudi state-controlled newspapers reported on Apr. 23 that security forces rounded up 40 men, women, and children of Pakistani citizenship who had been worshipping at an abandoned villa in western Riyadh. Translations, the New York Sun said, were provided by American-based Saudi monitors.

Recently, the Saudi Institute of Washington provided a quote taken from the Al-Riyadl newspaper. The newspaper had apparently quoted a security official as saying that the Christians were arrested for "trying to spread their poisonous religious beliefs to others through the distribution of books and pamphlets."

The Sun also reported that the arrests occurred just hours before Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah declared that "tolerance must extend to those of all faiths and practices" while visiting President Bush's ranch in Crawford, TX.

The arrests clearly “underscored the gap between Saudi pledges to the White House and its actions at home,” the news agency reported.

Shea told the Sun, “What they are doing is saying one thing in English and giving another signal to their own people.

“They are saying to the hard-liners at home that nothing is going to change. It's a way of speaking out of both sides of their mouth,” she added.

During last Monday’s talks at the president's ranch, Bush and Abdullah reportedly dicussed about the energy policy and issued a joint declaration in which the Saudis would affirm their commitment to religious tolerance.

"Saudi Arabia reiterates its call on all those who teach and propagate the Islamic faith to adhere strictly to the Islamic message of peace, moderation, and tolerance and reject that which deviates from those principles,” the declaration read, as reported by the Sun. “Both countries agree that this message of peace, moderation, and tolerance must extend to those of all faiths and practices.”

Nonetheless, in a 2004 report on international religious freedom, the U.S. State Department claimed that "freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia.

"It is not recognized or protected under the country's laws, and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam," the report had stated.

While the government officially allows non-Muslims to practice their religions at home and in private, the report added, authorities often do not respect the law.

As of recent, the Saudi government has also promoted religious intolerance abroad. The Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House reported in January that pamphlets found in mosques in America bore messages from the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs that Muslims who convert "should be killed."

Human-rights monitors and lawmakers have already criticized the Bush administration for not penalizing the Saudi government after the State Department in September designated the kingdom a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act. The 1998 statue gave the State Department the authority to officially single out "nations guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

Though the deadline for imposing penalties passed more than a month ago, State Department officials have said they need more time from Congress to decide on an appropriate action to take.