Brian O’Connor: the doubts and hopes of King Abdullah’s visit to the Pope
Mumbai (AsiaNews) – If yesterday’s meeting between King Abdullah and the Pope is not followed by a “concrete commitment” by Saudi Arabia to respect religious freedom then we will be forced to speak of it in terms of a “simple courtesy visit, a hypocritical move, devoid of meaning”. This is how Brian O’Connor*, a Christian of Indian origins, who was detained for in the Kingdom’s prisons in 2004 because of his faith comments on the “historic” event which took place in the Vatican. While describing it as a “positive step” towards possible improvements for the Christians in the area, he underlines how far Riyadh still is from respecting Human Rights. Below we report the full text of an exclusive interview with AsiaNews.
What importance do you place on the meeting between Benedict XVI and the Saudi King?
It is a positive step in every possible way; these are great signs of prosperity for non Muslims in Saudi Arabia where there is no religious freedom. If however Riyadh does not concretely commit itself to guaranteeing religious freedom then it is a hypocritical step as that the King would like to demonstrate to the International community that Saudi Arabia is opening up to Religious Freedom, and is just a courtesy meeting and of not much meaning and significance.
How do Christians live in Saudi Arabia?
The Saudi kingdom falsely claims to believe in Human Rights, but in my own personal experience, Saudi Arabia's human rights record is appalling, and this is manifest in its persecution. Saudi Arabia currently has one of the worst records of all countries on human rights and there is no freedom of religion. It is very essential for Christians to praise and worship in Saudi as there are lots of Christian working there. Christian worshippers risk arrest, lashing, and deportation for engaging in overt religious activity and there are no official churches in Saudi Arabia. The ever vigilant Muttawa or religious police are employed to enforce adherence to Islamic norms by monitoring public behaviour and even the personal lives of the people in the Saudi kingdom. The world must know that in Saudi, Christians are targeted for abuse, discrimination, and persecution, without any authentic verification, they can be picked up and arrested for proselytism, even their evidence is fabricated. Christians are even targeted for owning, printing, or distributing of any non-Muslim religious material.
What prospective may open in the aftermath of King Abdullah’s visit to the Vatican?
I hope this meeting will usher in a climate of tolerance and reciprocity for non- Muslims in the kingdom. I hope that there will be Liberty to open places of Christian worship and Churches in Saudi. I know the holiest sites of Muslims are there in Saudi, but in Rome too there are mosques, that there must and should be a spirit of reciprocity if the King was sincere in his desire to meet the Pope officially. If any Muslims any where in the world are jailed for whatever reason, they have the liberty of demanding a Koran, on the other hand, if a Christian is prosecuted and jailed in a Muslim country, and they request for a Bible, they are denied the Bible. If the King concedes full religious freedom then yesterday’s visit can be described as fruitful and the King’s intentions as sincere.
*Originally from Karnataka – South East India - O'Connor, a protestant Christian was arrested on March 25th 2004 by the Muttawa (i.e. religious police) after being lured outside his house in Riyadh. The Muttawa took him to a Mosque where he was severely beaten and tortured for over 24 hours. The Muttawa ordered him to sign a paper admitting to selling alcohol, and try to convert him to Islam. However he consistently refused. He was formally charged in September with possession and sale of alcohol, possession of pornographic videos, possession of Bibles and preaching Christianity. On 20th October, he was convicted of selling alcohol, and sentenced to 10 months in prison plus 300 lashes. O’Connor always maintained his innocence and admitted only to organising private prayer meetings as allowed under State law. In November he was released and expelled from the country thanks to a massive campaign of international pressure promoted by AsiaNews. Recalling his 7 months of prison O’Connor expresses no regrets: “At least my seven months and seven days in the Saudi prison served to denounce the Religious Freedom violations in that place”.