06/09/2012, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA
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Jeddah: 35 Ethiopian Christians still in prison after praying in a private home

They were arrested in December 2011. Despite US pressures, Saudi authorities deny religion was the motive behind their detention. Since 2006, praying in private has been allowed in Saudi Arabia.

Jeddah (AsiaNews/ Agencies) - Thirty-five Ethiopian Christians will remain in jail in Jeddah. They were arrested in December 2011 when they were caught praying in a private home. On Thursday, International Christian Concern (ICC), a US-based Christian rights group, appealed for their release, noting contradictions in Saudi claims. Local authorities in fact refuse to acknowledge that the 29 women and 6 men were imprisoned for religious reasons. What is known is that they have been beaten, subjected to interrogations and strip searches.

In Saudi Arabia, Islam is the only religion allowed. However in 2006, the kingdom's authorities told the United States that they would "guarantee and protect the right to private worship for all, including non-Muslims who gather in homes for religious practice".  Public expressions of other religions would by contrast remain illegal.

On 15 December 2011, 35 Ethiopian immigrants gathered in the private home of one of them to pray during the Advent of Christmas. The religious police (Muttawa) burst into the house and arrested those present.

The Christians were first taken to a police station, and later moved to Buraiman Prison. Women were forced to strip for a body search; the men were beaten and insulted as "unbelievers".

Ten days after their arrest, the prisoners were taken to court where they were forced to affix their fingerprints on a paper they were not allowed to read.

The initial charge was "gender mingling", a term that refers to situations when unrelated members of the opposite sex are found together.

In May, the US Congress asked the Saudi Embassy in Washington to explain the situation. Embassy officer Sarah Nezamuddin told a Congressional office that the Christians had all been arrested for involvement in drug and human trafficking, a story she later changed to issues relating to their work permits. For Congress officials, the Christians did not commit any crime and should be released.

According to ICC sources, a few days after the meeting in Washington, the prisoners were brought to a court for the first time in six months. After two hearings, the authorities locked them up against without specifying reasons for the detention or when they would be released.

"I continue to be baffled by the inability of the Saudi government to explain exactly why 35 Christians attending a prayer service at a private home were suddenly arrested almost six months ago," said ICC Advocacy Officer Ryan Morgan.

"The story keeps changing, and it is very troubling to think that a key US ally in the Middle East may be lying to US government officials about why they are arresting religious minorities," Morgan added.

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