Skip to main content

Features

Wrist slap

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

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.

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.

Police dumped Mr. Daniel at Riyadh's Shumesi Deportation Center, where he shared a cell with some 200 foreigners, including Ethiopians, Sudanese, and Pakistanis. Four hours later, they transferred him to another cell where all the 200 inmates were Indian.

Crammed into a space measuring about 25-by-25 feet, the men could only stand. The cell had four toilets, only two of which worked, and the men had to drink from five or six water taps. Window air-conditioning units did not work. No one had a change of clothes, and many had been there four, five, or even 10 months without a day of fresh air. If they complained of illness, they often took beatings.

At 5:30 p.m. each day jail officials shoved in trays of bread marked "Food for Pigs"-all the inmates received, apart from some occasional dates. Often there were fewer than 200 pieces of bread, sometimes sparking fights as the men scrabbled to get their rations. "No one is allowed to visit," Mr. Daniel told WORLD. "No one knows they are there. . . . I heard the deportation center was bad. I never thought it was like this."

Mr. Daniel did not have to stay long. He had smuggled a cell phone tucked into a sock and quickly called the Indian Embassy. After three days an embassy official secured his release, made easier by the pastor's employment release letter. That is usually not the case; inmates told him jailers had beaten some of them in front of embassy officials. Countries such as India do not carry much clout in Saudi Arabia and are reluctant to complain-in India's case, to do so is to risk the cash 1.5 million resident Indians send home each year.

If Mr. Daniel's experience was harrowing, it is no worse than what foreign Christians have suffered before. A decade ago, authorities meted out lashes and longer imprisonments. The question is whether the Saudis will make systemic reforms in the coming months-and whether the United States will penalize them if they do not.

Pressing Saudi Arabia for religious freedom, State Department officials say, requires delicate diplomatic footwork. Negotiating to release religious prisoners should not take months but does in restricted countries. At the same time, hard efforts to penalize the Saudis can backfire, rousing the kingdom's defenders within the State Department: After the Trafficking in Persons office succeeded in ranking Saudi Arabia as a country doing little to combat rampant slavery, U.S. sanctions or suspended aid could have followed. Instead, the kingdom received a "national interest" waiver.

John Hanford, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, emphasizes that the Saudis' extension is only 180 days. "We feel like our discussions are productive, unlike discussions with some other countries," he said. "We feel like the government of Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction. . . . My heart and passion in this is to advance religious freedom as far as we can. And if I feel like some additional time to discuss some important issues may yield some meaningful change, I want to give that a try."

Out of the deportation center, Mr. Daniel received 15 days to pack up. His wife remains in Saudi Arabia, her income needed to support their four children's schooling. His swift ejection is the only response he received to the letter he sent to the governor on private worship. That, and a denial from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that he was even detained: "After the necessary investigations, it was found that yours was not a detention," it stated. "You were not handed over to the police."

Priya Abraham

Priya Abraham