A group of Christians from Ethiopia said to be unlawfully imprisoned in Saudi Arabia has been facing increased pressure to convert to Islam, a Christian human rights advocacy group informed The Christian Post.
According to International Christian Concern (ICC), an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., and with agents in countries where Christians experience persecution, the 35 Christian Ethiopian men and women were violently arrested on Dec. 15 during a prayer meeting at a private home in Jeddah, a city on the western coast of the country. The group was reportedly arrested for holding a meeting in which both men and women were present, which is frowned upon in the conservative Muslim country. But ICC told CP that the prisoners claim they are being persecuted because of their faith.
The agency has previously reported that the prisoners were physically harassed by prison officials after their arrest – the men were allegedly assaulted and the women humiliated by a sexually inappropriate strip search. Human Rights Watch confirmed that report. The men and women have also reportedly been complaining of insufficient care.
Now, while still in prison, the Christian group is reportedly experiencing pressures to convert to Islam.
"The Muslim preacher [that was sent by officials to speak to the prisoners] vilified Christianity, denigrated the Bible and told us that Islam is the only true religion," one of the female prisoners said, according to ICC. "The preacher told us to convert to Islam. When the preacher asked us, we didn't deny about our Christian faith.
"I was so offended with her false teachings that I left the meeting," the woman added.
The prisoner also expressed fear that the teaching sessions might incite Muslim prisoners to harass and even attack the group, ICC said in a statement.
The detained Christians are reportedly still in the dark about their legal status. They have all come to Saudi Arabia from Ethiopia in order to find work. Some of them do not have a legal work permit, ICC told CP. Some of the Ethiopians have been living in the Saudi kingdom for 16 years, while others are newer arrivals, according to Human Rights Watch.
Last week, Human Rights Watch reported that the Christian prisoners will be deported back to Ethiopia. However the prisoners told ICC Tuesday that they are unaware of any such decision and do not know when or if they will be released.
"Why don't they release us? We want to go back to our country and worship freely," the female prisoner told the agency.
"We are deeply concerned by the Saudi Arabian officials' recent attempts to pressure the Christians into converting to Islam," ICC's Africa Regional Manager Jonathan Racho said in a statement emailed to CP. "We ask that all concerned individuals and groups continue to pressure Saudi Arabia to release the Christians. We urge Saudi Arabia to respect the right of these prisoners to follow the religion of their choice and to immediately release them."
Saudi officials have as of yet not commented on the controversy, while criticism against them mounts.
"While King Abdullah sets up an international interfaith dialogue center, his police are trampling on the rights of believers of others faiths," Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, said recently. "The Saudi government needs to change its own intolerant ways before it can promote religious dialogue abroad."
Saudi Arabia officially has a 100 percent Muslim population, but according to unofficial sources, Christianity is practiced by about 3.5 percent of the total population and Hinduism is practiced by 0.6 percent of the population. The followers of Baha'i are said to add up to about 0.1 percent.
In its 2011 report on global religious freedom, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Saudi Arabia be put on the U.S. Department of State's list of "countries of particular concern" (CPC), that is, countries where serious religious rights violations have been reported.
However, Racho of ICC told CP that the arrest of the Christian group from Ethiopia during their regular prayer meeting is unusual, because Saudi officials have so far been tolerant of residents worshipping in their private homes, as there are no official churches where Christians can gather in the mostly Sunni country.