Christians traveling to Saudi Arabia are being warned not to publicly display their Bible while in the country or travel with more than one copy of the text, despite the kingdom's recent openness to tourism.
The Christian persecution watchdog group Barnabus Fund released a statement Monday warning individuals that having a Bible can still put them at risk of arrest.
“Christian visitors should be aware that displaying a Bible in public, or taking more than one Bible into the country, could place them at risk of arrest,” the group cautioned.
“The new regulations for tourists state that a Bible may be brought into the country provided it is for personal use only. Bibles must not be displayed in public and anyone found bringing a large number of Bibles will face ‘severe penalties.’”
Barnabus went on to explain that the Saudi Arabian government follows a strict interpretation of Islam and that openly practicing Christianity in the kingdom is forbidden.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Christians from other nations, such as the Philippines, other parts of Asia, or African countries, who are living and working in Saudi Arabia,” the group added.
“But they must meet in private homes to worship, and risk harassment, arrest and deportation if they are caught doing so. Saudi citizens who convert to Christianity face risk of execution by the state for apostasy if their conversion becomes known.”
Last month, Saudi Arabia announced it was launching a new visa program meant to encourage tourism, in part to move the kingdom away from its dependence on the oil industry.
Previously, the Islamic country’s visa program was restricted to those coming for business or religious pilgrimage, according to the BBC.
Foreign women taking advantage of the visa program will not be required to adhere to the nation’s strict dress code or be accompanied in public. However, they will still be expected to dress modestly.
Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmad al-Khateeb said last month that the new visa was a “historic moment” for the nation, adding that the kingdom boasts “five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”
“We have a culture. We believe our friends and our guests will respect the culture, but definitely it is modest and it will be very clear,” said al-Khateeb, as reported by the BBC.
The persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA has ranked Saudi Arabia as the 15th worst persecutor of Christians in the world, according to its annual World Watch List report.
“Christian churches in Saudi Arabia are continuously targeted. Three underground house churches were reportedly closed [in 2018], some after being raided by police,” noted Open Doors’ report.
“Christians—both Saudis and foreigners—risk imprisonment, physical abuse and serious threats because of their faith. Several were forced to leave the country because of their faith or faith-related activities.”