05/31/2005, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Eight Protestant leaders arrested in Riyadh

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Vijay Kumar, a 45-year-old Indian national from the state of Tamil Nadu, and seven other Protestant leaders were arrested by the Muttawa, Saudi Arabia's religious police.

Relatives and friends in Riyadh have had no news about the fate of their loved ones, nor do they know where they are detained.

AsiaNews sources in the country said that Mr Kumar was taken in by police on May 28. His arrest came in the wake of that of another Indian, Samkutty Varghese, an Evangelical Christian who had entered the country on January 26 on a tourist visa.

The Muttawa detained Mr Varghese, who was waiting for his visa to be extended, on March 9. They found him in possession of a Hindi Bible and some phone numbers, which they used to carry out other arrests.

On May 28, the religious police raided a private prayer gathering of Protestant groups in the Batha area of the Saudi capital.

Later that day, at 8 pm, the police arrived at Mr Kumar's home. They interrogated him and his wife Christy Vijay Kumar till 3 am and then took away all religious material found in the residence, the family computers and Mr Kumar himself.

All those arrested belong to Assembly of God Evangelical groups.

Ms Kumar works as a catechist and normally teaches 40 Christian children from India and Muscat in her home.

Vijay Kumar has been in Saudi Arabia since 1994 working for Al Salam Aircraft. His home has been a gathering place for Christians since 2002.

His Saudi colleagues consider him a good person and are worried for his fate. And his employer has asked the police for information about his disappearance, thus far with little success.

In Saudi Arabia, freedom of expression is banned for all religions but Islam. Every public expression of other faiths (holding a Bible, wearing a cross or a rosary, praying) are outlawed.

The religious police, which has a reputation for being uncompromising and violent, remorselessly enforces the ban.

In the last few years, international pressures have forced the Saudi royal family to relent a bit and allow non Muslim to practice their religion at least in the privacy of the home. None the less, the Muttawa continues to arrest, imprison and torture people who practice another faith. For instance, on April 23, they arrested 40 Pakistani Christians who were worshiping at home.

Saudi Arabia's economy heavily depends on foreigners, but although they are allowed to work, they are not allowed to profess their faith.

Out of a population of some 21.6 million people, foreigners are around 8 million.

Muslims represent 97.3 per cent of the total, whilst Christians constitute 3.7 per cent, almost all from India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Egypt. Catholics number some 900,000.

In its 2004 report, the US Commission on religious freedom in the world said the Saudi kingdom was a country of particular concern.

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