Report: Saudi Religious Police Arrest Dozens for Prohibited Worship

The Philippine Embassy in Riyadh said Tuesday that it has extended assistance to 12 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who were arrested along with around 90 other expatriates for congregating for a religious activity.

In a report to the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Philippine Consul General Ezzedin Tago said that 12 OFWs were arrested on Friday when they allegedly participated in a mass with a French priest in the Nadeem District.

The public practice of non-Muslim religions is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia, which bases its constitution on the Qur'an and the Sunna (traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). Non-Muslims are only allowed to gather in homes for private religious services.

Upon learning of the incident, embassy representatives verified the information, and learned that the OFWs were brought to the Rawdah Police Station. After speaking to the police on behalf of the 12, the representatives were able to convince the police to temporarily release 11 OFWs into the custody of their employers on Saturday.

Embassy representatives are currently negotiating with the employer of the remaining OFW to facilitate his release from jail. The Embassy said Tuesday that it is closely monitoring the case.

While the nationality and present status of the other 90 who were reportedly detained were not immediately known, reports claim that they – like the OFWs – were mostly, if not all, expatriates.

John Leonard Monterona, regional coordinator of Migrante Middle East Chapter, said he had been contacted by two of the OFWs on separate occasions regarding the arrests and had estimated that around 100 people were involved.

In a statement, Monterona warned OFWs to respect the cultural prohibitions imposed by the host country, specifically the performing of religious worship other than Islam.

"We are 'foreigners' of third class category here in Saudi," Monterona said.

"To avoid getting into trouble like this one, our fellow OFWs must be cautious and must have a 'sense of extra care' especially in Saudi Arabia, which has been known to be strictly implementing its cultural laws not only to their own nationals but also to expatriates or foreign workers including OFWs," he added.

As a matter of policy, the Saudi Government permits non-Muslims to practice their religion without interference as long as it is done privately within their own homes. Under the government's official interpretation of Islam, however, there is no legal recognition or protection of religious freedom, which is severely restricted in practice, as noted in the most recent religious freedom report on the country by the U.S. State Department.

Moreover, the country's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) occasionally conducts raids on private non-Muslim religious gatherings and sometimes confiscates the personal religious materials of non-Muslims.

Although the Saudi Government's stated policy protects the right to possess and use personal religious materials, it does not provide for this right in law.

Presently, approximately 85 to 90 percent of the country's citizens are Sunni Muslims, and conversion by Muslims to another religion (apostasy) and proselytizing by non-Muslims are punishable by death under the Islamic laws adopted by the country.

Islam is the country's official religion.

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