Ethiopian Christian Prisoners Assaulted, Strip-Searched in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian officials strip-searched 29 Christian women and assaulted six Christian men after arresting them for holding a prayer meeting at a private home in the western city of Jeddah, a Christian human rights advocacy group informed The Christian Post.

The alleged incident happened soon after the arrest of the 35 Christian Ethiopian men and women on Dec. 15, with authorities reportedly using violence, while the group was holding a prayer meeting at a private home in Jeddah.

They have been imprisoned without trial and have not been told when or if they will be released, ICC told CP.

The authorities reportedly conducted the strip searches of the women, who insisted they had committed no crime, in unsanitary conditions. As a result, some of the women have experienced physical pain and illnesses, yet authorities provided no medical treatment, according to International Christian Concern (ICC), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

"We feel humiliated because the security officials strip searched us. They used the same glove to search several of us at the same time. Some of my friends are suffering from physical pain to their private parts due to the unsanitary condition of the strip search. We haven't committed any crime. We are imprisoned for worshiping the God of heaven and earth," one of the female prisoners said during an interview with ICC.

The men in prison have also been physically assaulted by their interrogators after the arrest and one of them has sustained serious injuries to his ribs and was unable to move until recently, the agency reported. The prisoners have also reportedly been mocked by authorities for their Christian beliefs.

Officially, authorities claim the arrests were due to "improper mixing of genders" during the meeting, which is frowned upon in conservative Saudi Arabia, a Muslim-dominated country governed by Islamic laws. An employer of one of the imprisoned Christians was initially told by officials that the arrests took place for holding Christian meetings, ICC informed CP. The prisoners themselves are also convinced that they were arrested for holding the prayer meeting and point out that the questioning they faced under interrogation was focused around their Christian beliefs, ICC claims.

"A high-ranking security official insulted us saying 'you are non-believers and animals.' He also said, 'You are pro-Jews and supporters of America," a prisoner told ICC.

To such words, the prisoners reportedly responded: "We love everyone. Our God tells us to love everyone."

Saudi Arabia has a 100 percent Muslim population, according to official statistics. However, a small percentage of Christians exists unofficially, not acknowledged by the government.

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.

"Almost 10 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Saudi government has failed to implement a number of promised reforms related to religious practice and tolerance," the report reads. "The Saudi government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government's own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam; prohibits churches, synagogues, temples, and other non- Muslim places of worship; uses in schools state textbooks that continue to espouse intolerance and incite violence; and periodically interferes with private religious practice."

The arrest of the Christian group during their regular prayer meeting is unusual, because Saudi officials have so far been tolerating people's right to worship in their own homes, as there are no churches that Christians could use for gathering, Jonathan Racho, ICC's Regional Manager for Africa and Middle East, told CP.

"The Saudi Arabian officials are committing serious violations of human rights by detaining and mistreating the Christians. It is outrageous that the officials indefinitely incarcerate innocents for practicing their faith. We urge the Saudi officials to release the prisoners and respect their religious freedom." Racho also said in a statement to CP.

One of the prisoners appealed via ICC: "We want you to help us to get out of prison in every way you can, including prayer. Please tell your governments about our plight, contact human rights organizations and others and inform them about us."

Tuesday ICC launched a petition targeting the Saudi Ambassador in the U.S., Adel A. Al-Jubeir, calling for the release of prisoners and the prevention of any future acts of persecution against Christians in the country.

CP was not able to speak with a representative of the Saudi embassy in the U.S. for immediate comment.

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