Features

Wrist slap

Saudi Arabia | The Bush administration grants diplomatic waivers to its kingpin Arab ally while evidence of religious oppression grows

Issue: "Riots in France," Nov. 19, 2005

Samuel Daniel had a question for the governor of Riyadh: How and when could he, as a Christian and expatriate Indian, worship legally in Saudi Arabia? He thought he knew the answer. This year, he found out otherwise.

In late May, Saudi Arabia's religious police, or Muttawa, raided Mr. Daniel's home. Police arrested him for holding house-church services and possessing Christian literature. Though authorities initially released Mr. Daniel, it was a mild reprieve: They eventually deported him in late October, after 21 years in the kingdom.

For dozens of foreign Christians deported from Saudi Arabia, Mr. Daniel's is a familiar story. But it is one that should be changing. In 2004-and again on Nov. 8 this year-the United States named Saudi Arabia one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world, in an exclusive band of just eight countries. By law, the United States must take action to pressure such "countries of particular concern," which can include sanctions.

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Two other countries-Eritrea and Vietnam-were also named persecutors with Saudi Arabia last year. The United States has since banned the commercial export of military equipment to Eritrea and has penned a binding agreement with Vietnam to establish freedoms. Saudi Arabia, however, so far has won a free pass, receiving a six-month waiver on Sept. 30. In the meantime, abuses against minorities such as Mr. Daniel remain.

The 50-year-old's woes began when authorities jailed a visiting Indian pastor. The Muttawa promised his release if he turned over a list of local Christian leaders. One of them was Mr. Daniel.

On May 28, about 20 Muttawa forced their way into Mr. Daniel's home, bringing with them four of his friends, policemen, and representatives from the Ministry of Interior. He was a prize catch, a de facto pastor who had discreetly preached, held theology classes, and conducted regular services for about 250 people in his home.

For the next 13 hours, the entourage isolated Mr. Daniel in his bedroom and confiscated his property. Occasionally, authorities came in to question him, employing a beefy Muttawa member to hit Mr. Daniel and his friends on the face and chest.

The officials then took the men to the Al Mabahes jail at the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh, where they questioned them for 10 days. After shackling their legs and abandoning them in a corridor for three days, the ministry threw them into a jail cell. Here authorities treated them better, providing full meals and beds. But the interrogations were intensive, running every day for four to eight hours.

Officials tried to cajole Mr. Daniel into signing a confession, one that said he broke the law by holding Christian gatherings. He refused. "I understand I'm allowed to exercise my faith at home privately," he told them. He then cited newspaper clippings he had painstakingly stashed at home, which quoted Saudi leaders promising the right. To Mr. Daniel's surprise-and the stunned relief of family and friends-they then released him. He still cannot fathom why.

Nonetheless, the pastor quickly wrote a letter in July to Riyadh's governor asking him to clarify and guarantee the right to private worship. For all Christians living in Saudi Arabia, this is a crucial concern because practice often trumps theory. Non-Muslim public worship is forbidden, leaving Christians the right to practice their faith only at home. Officials say people are free to gather for worship at home, but the Muttawa like to disrupt any meetings that attract their notice.

At the same time, Mr. Daniel's arrest spooked his employer, the law firm of Abdullah Saad Alfozan. By Saudi law, companies that hire foreign workers must sponsor them for employment. Some 8.8 million foreigners live in the kingdom, comprising two-thirds of the Saudi workforce, one-third of the population, and occupying almost all private sector jobs. A sponsor keeps his worker's foreign passport, and unless he releases him, he cannot resign or look for another job.

After two decades the law firm decided to remove him, officially in the guise of shedding no longer needed staff. His boss signed a release letter Oct. 5 freeing him to find new work. But behind the scenes another plot line was forming. Mr. Daniel thinks the religious police were unhappy with his light treatment by the Ministry of Interior. Two days after signing his release, Mr. Alfozan's son turned Mr. Daniel over to authorities for "absconding" from his job.

Seeing the sponsor's employment release letter, the police were at first confused, until Mr. Alfozan's son produced a new and mysterious court order for the Indian's deportation, likely instigated by the Muttawa.

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