Saudi authorities on Feb. 8 arrested 53 Ethiopian Christians, mostly women, who were attending a worship service in the private, rented home of an Ethiopian believer in Dammam, the capital of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, WEA-RLC has learnt from sources inside the Arab kingdom.
The Christians - 46 women and six men including three church leaders - were arrested at about 10 a.m. last Friday, a close relative of one of those arrested told WEA-RLC. The three church leaders - two of them women - were produced in an Islamic court in Dammam the same day when authorities alleged they were converting Muslims to Christianity, the source added.
Authorities are likely to release two of the Ethiopian Christians who have residential permits on Monday, and the others are expected to be deported.
Dammam, a center for petroleum and natural gas and all commerce in the eastern parts of the kingdom, is a large metropolitan, industrial area and a major seaport. However, religious freedom is not granted to the numerous visitors or expats in the region, like elsewhere in the nation. A Saudi girl who embraced Christianity and fled Dammam in September 2012 was granted asylum in Sweden last month, according to Al-Yaum newspaper.
In December 2011, Saudi authorities arrested 35 Ethiopian Christians, 29 of them women, for "illicit mingling," after police arrested them when they raided a private prayer gathering in Jeddah. Of those arrested 29 were women, who were subjected to arbitrary body cavity searches in custody, according to Human Rights Watch.
"We call on Saudi authorities to treat all those arrested with dignity, and release them immediately as there is apparently no evidence for any offense against them," Godfrey Yogarajah, WEA-RLC Executive Director, said. "Arrest of believers for peacefully gathering for worship goes against the spirit of Saudi Arabia's promotion of inter-religious dialogue in international fora."
More than 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 promoting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief, noted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2012 annual report.
"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 its schools and posts online state textbooks that continue to espouse intolerance and incite violence; and periodically interferes with private religious practice," the report said.
[Source: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission]