05/17/2005, 00.00
PAKISTAN - SAUDI ARABIA
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Government should help Christians detained in Saudi Arabia, says Bishop of Lahore

by Qaiser Felix
Pakistani immigrants arrested because they were celebrating mass in a Riyadh home. Pakistan should treat the case without any religious discrimination; they are citizens like everybody else, say Mgr Saldanha.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – The Catholic Church and human rights groups are calling on the government of Pakistan to intervene on behalf of 40 Pakistani Christians arrested by the muttawa, Saudi Arabia's religious police.

In an interview with AsiaNews, Mgr Lawrence Saldanha, Archbishop of Lahore, called on the authorities to act "immediately" in order to get the release of those detained in Riyadh.

"The government," the Archbishop warns, "must treat this case without any religious discrimination and act on behalf of its citizens who are living abroad".

On April 23, 40 Pakistani Christians were arrested as they celebrated mass in a private residence in the city of Riyadh.

Policemen who raided the place found Christian books and audiovisual material.

In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to practice any religion other than Islam.

It is not yet clear what might happen to them since Saudi authorities have not yet made any public comment about the incident.

Pakistani authorities have equally been silent; they have not said a single word of condemnation for the action nor expressed any solidarity towards the victims.

Archbishop Saldanha, who chairs the National Commission for Justice and Peace, has called the arrest "a serious example of religious discrimination and human rights violation" and urged the Saudi government to "respect religious freedom".

Numerous Pakistani and international human rights groups have appealed to the Pakistani government to ensure the liberation of the 40 Pakistani Christians. For example, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) sent a letter to the Pakistani Foreign Minister.

"Given your proven commitment to upholding human rights, we urge you to take up the matter with Saudi authorities and seek the immediate release of these unfortunate persons and provide them the assistance and support they urgently require," said the letter signed by the HRCP's secretary general Syed Iqbal Haider.

Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) also expressed its concern for the physical well-being of the 40 Christians.

VOM spokesman Todd Nettleton stressed that Christians from countries that are politically and economically less powerful face greater persecution.

"[B]ecause they are Pakistanis they could face a long period of time in jail. We've seen people from less powerful countries [. . .] held for long periods of time and in one case sentenced to die," he added.

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