Detention of 12 Jailed Christians Drags On
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, November 5 (Compass) -- At least 12 foreign Christians jailed months ago in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah remain under arrest in the Sharafia detention facility, despite verbal reports that investigations of their case were completed weeks ago.
Diplomatic officials from the five countries whose citizens remain under arrest told Compass that their repeated requests for consulate access to the 12 men have gone unanswered by Saudi authorities.
According to relatives recently allowed to visit the men in detention, the Christians were told by prison staff during the third week of October that their release was to be soon, and hinged only on "an official letter from the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh."
"It is not clear if they will be released only to be deported," a source in Jeddah said.
According to the wife of one detainee, each man's Saudi employer would decide the deportation issue. Over the past decade, Ministry of Interior authorities in the kingdom have advised local sponsors to terminate the contracts of any expatriate employee detained by the "muttawa" [religious police] over alleged religious activities.
As citizens of India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Philippines, the 12 Christians were all legally employed by Saudi companies at the time of their arrests. The string of detentions began in mid July and continued into the first week of September.
All are members of small expatriate congregations meeting for Christian worship in private homes. Under the strict Saudi interpretation of Islamic law, non-Muslims are forbidden to meet for public worship.
Consular officials in Jeddah expressed frustration last week over the Saudi government's blanket refusal to respond to their requests to meet their citizens or learn if any specific charges are being leveled against them.
"There is no development from our side," a representative of the Indian Consulate said on October 31. Indian citizen Prabhu Isaac was the first Christian arrested -- on July 19 -- in the religious police sweep. "He is still under detention, and we are asking the Saudi government for consular access to him," the diplomat said, noting it had been three and one-half months since Isaac's arrest.
"The question now is to find out whether any charges have been framed against him," he said. If that is the case, "Then [those charges] are to be produced in a sharia court. And if he is acquitted, then they will not have any objection if he leaves Saudi Arabia."
An officer in the Nigerian Consulate admitted his government was "terribly, terribly disappointed" to be denied the international right of consular access to Nigerian citizen Afobunor Okey Buliamin. "We are not taking this lightly," he said. "Even if he had committed murder, he should be entitled to consular access!"
"Between our embassy in Riyadh and our consulate in Jeddah, we have sent so many letters of protest, requesting to see this man," the diplomat told Compass on October 31. "But we have not been granted any answer."
He noted that nearly a month ago, the Nigerian consul general had met with the director of protocol in the Saudi Foreign Ministry over the issue. "We were given the promise that they will accelerate granting of the approval," the spokesman said. "So I don't know what they call acceleration here."
Inquiries from Amnesty International, which released an Urgent Action bulletin regarding the men's incommunicado detention on August 24, have also gone unanswered, a London representative of the human rights group told Compass today. Noting that "personal effects including Bibles were reportedly confiscated," Amnesty had stated that the men "may have been arrested for their Christian beliefs and activities."
The imprisoned Christians, none of whom are in solitary confinement, reportedly have good morale and have all been allowed visits from their families. "Many are detained together, and have better than average conditions for Jeddah jails," a local source confirmed.
"All are in good health now," the source noted, although three of the detained men were said to have been beaten once.
The wife of Nigerian Christian Afobunor Buliamin told Compass that when she last visited her husband on November 3, he had no news as to when he and the others would be released. "But God is moving mightily within them there," she said, "so this is wonderful."
She said their daughter Deborah, who is four years old, asks every morning when she gets up, "Mommy, when are they going to release my Daddy?" Before she goes to bed at night, she said, the little girl prays, "God, release my Daddy. Please release everybody, to come out and stay with their families."
Deborah was at home with her mother and baby brother on August 19 when she saw Saudi police arrest her father and take him away.
On September 30, the Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) had identified 13 Christians then under arrest: Prabhu Isaac from India; Eskinder Menghis, Kebrom Haile and Yusuf Girmaye from Eritrea; Afobunor Okey Buliamin from Nigeria; Dennis Moreno from the Philippines; and Ethiopians Tinsaie Gizachew, Mesfin Berhanu, Bahru Mengistu, Gabayu Tefera, Beferdu Fikri, Genet Haileab and Worku (surname unknown).
However, according to relatives who have been allowed periodic visits to the detention center, the men said that only 12 Christians are now under arrest there.
According to the 2001 International Religious Freedom Report released October 26 by the U.S. State Department, "The right to private worship still is restricted" for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, despite governmental claims to the contrary.
2001 Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.