06/09/2004, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA – Italy
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Solidarity for poor O'Connor, the Christian tortured by the Saudi police

by Lorenzo Fazzini

Interview to M.P. Mario Scajola, president of the Italian division of the World Muslim League (Rome)

Rome (AsiaNews) – According to Mario Scajola, the former Italian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the O'Connor affair is just an isolated case. Scajola converted to Islam in 1987. In an interview to AsiaNews, the member of the Italian Parliament affirms that in Saudi Arabia "it is illegal to profess other religions, but in practice it is tolerated". Scajola declares he does not approve limitations to religious freedom. The drug related charges – which are mere fabrications made up by the religious police – "are very serious. When someone is accused of drug crimes, he is hardly proven not guilty". Scaloja is the President of the Italian division of the world Muslim League.

On. Scaloja, the Indian citizen O'Connor has been held in prison for a long time. He's been accused of preaching Christ. What do you think about it?

In Saudi Arabia it is officially forbidden to profess other religions. On the other hand, it is tolerated. Priests and bishops go to Saudi Arabia and they are allowed to celebrate Mass. They just have to do it with extreme reserve, using private buildings and without any kind of publicity. It is a practical tolerance, which is insufficient anyway. A case analogous to that of O'Connor happened in 1988. A priest and a group of Christians, all from the Philippines, were arrested because they celebrated Mass in a public place. The priest was released after a week and the rest of the group just one day after the arrest. The priest was forced to leave the country.      

O'Connor has been beaten up and tortured by the religious police…

I did not know about O'Connor until yesterday. It is absolutely an isolated case. The last incident I can remember is the one I just quoted.

O'Connor has been accused of preaching Jesus and of drug and alchool related crimes. These charges have a completely different nature, don't you think? According to his family the charges for drug and alcohol peddling are mere fabrications…

If an Italian is arrested for committing a robbery and killing a retailer, he will be charged with both robbery and murder. I think that the poor man [O'Connor], for whom I feel sympathy and solidarity, is in a very difficult situation. In Saudi Arabia it is very difficult to get away with such an accusation.

Do you support the campaign for the release of the prisoner arrested for religious reasons?

I have always said what I think about this kind of problems. I do not approve any kind of religious limitation. However, we have to remember that in Saudi Arabia exists a practical tolerance.

Do you think it is possible that in Saudi Arabia religious freedom will be officially approved?

Inshallah. I do not know. It depends on the Saudis.

In Saudi Arabia 15 human rights activists are currently held in jail. They are Muslim. What is your opinion?

Some months ago members of the Royal family, as well as many intellectuals, appealed to the prince for more democracy in the country. Because of this appeal, the prince is trying to promulgate some reforms. For instance, 900 radical imams have been recently removed from public universities. King Fahad has inaugurated a project finalised to the constitution of regional assemblies. The prince is working to involve people in the political life of the country. They are making some efforts to promote new reforms. I think the Western world should support these efforts.

Meanwhile,15 Muslim citizens who asked for democratic reforms are being held in prison…

This is possible. When I was the Italian ambassador they arrested an imam who made sermons against the Royal family. They held him in prison, along with 50 other people, for a few weeks. Eventually, the authorities released them all. I mean… nothing bad really happened. Saudi Arabia cannot be considered to be a country which brutally represses dissidents.

 

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