06/03/2005, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Families of Christians arrested in Riyadh appeal to international community

The pregnant wife of one of the detainees demands her husband's release so that they can both leave the country. Speaking by phone, prisoners tell stories about every kind of torture and abuse.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – AsiaNews has received an appeal from relatives and friends of eight Christians arrested in Riyadh on May 28 because of their faith calling for their release. It also includes additional information about this latest episode in the denial of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.

Local sources gave AsiaNews details about the fate of these victims of Saudi repression in what some human rights activists have called the worst crackdown on religious minorities in the country in the last decades. 

John Thomas, 37, an Indian national from the state of Kerala, is among the Christians arrested by the Muttawa, the Saudi religious police. He joins another Indian, Vijay Kumar, 45, from Tamil Nadu about whose case AsiaNews has already reported.

John Thomas is accused of proselytising. But his relatives explain that for the past eight years all he did was hold private prayer meetings in his flat with fellow Indian Christians of all denominations. Relatives also say that this is the first time that he was targeted and that he has been "tortured in inhumane ways".

Working this time in conjunction with the regular police in an act of methodical persecution, on May 28 the Muttawa picked up John Thomas from his place of work and drove him home. Here, he was beaten in front of his five year old son and the babysitter, who was also struck. After his Bibles and other religious objects were collected, he was taken to prison.

On returning, Mr Thomas's five-month pregnant wife found the place wrecked.

She and relatives have launched an appeal for her husband's release and their family's right to return to India safe and sound.

On the same day that Thomas was arrested, seven other Christians were detained and taken to prison. Sources told AsiaNews that one of them was able to call a friend using his cellphone, describing how they are being tortured and subjected to all kinds of abuse.

The anti-Christian crackdown in Riyadh comes after another arrest last March, that of Samkutty Varghese, an evangelical Christian also from India.

The Muttawa found a Hindi version of the Bible in his bag and a list of phone numbers, which they used to carry out other arrests.

According to International Christian Concern, a Washington-based human rights organisation, the May 28 crackdown is the biggest one against religious minorities in the country in last decades.  

In the Saudi Kingdom, Muslims constitute 97.3 per cent of the total population of 21.6 million. Christians constitute 3.7 per cent, almost all foreigners. Catholics number some 900,000.

Every public expression of religious faith other than Islam (possession of a Bible, carrying a crucifix, praying) are banned; however, as a result of international pressure, the Saudi Crown has allowed other religious practices if they are conducted privately.

Still, the Muttawa continues to arrest, imprison and torture people who practice other religions even if they do so in private. (MA) 

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