06/01/2004, 00.00
saudi arabia
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Fear and isolation mark the life of foreign people in the Middle-East country

by Theresa Ricci

Security problems, lack of religious freedom and sexual discrimination.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Foreign people who live in Saudi Arabia have become the target of terrorists. This new menace has made their life even more complicated than it was before. The 5 million Western citizens who live in this Middle-East country are forced to live in isolation, respecting the rigid rules of Islam that prevent them even from practicing their Christian faith. Immediately after Al Qaeda attacked Khobar, AsiaNews tried to interview some eyewitnesses. Many of them refused to talk because they were too scared, but some other have given a shocking testimony of what is going on in Saudi Arabia.  

A man who has just left the country tells us about the difficult life foreign people in Saudi Arabia must live. "We live in fear 24 hours a day. This is why we seldom leave the compounds. We are completely segregated from the rest of the population, but we still fear that someone can enter our areas and kill us all. This makes completely impossible to live a normal life. There are supermarkets for foreign people, but we even refrain from shopping. Some communities are trying to accumulate food resources within the compound areas, so that they can avoid to go out. In order to secure the areas from suicide bombers the authorities have filled the roads to the compounds with barriers and barricades".

In Saudi Arabia foreign people used to have a difficult life even before September 11th. Christian practise is strictly forbidden. "The whole country is considered to be holy ground because of the mosques in Medina and Mecca. For this reason other religions are not tolerated. Those who are not Muslim cannot even enter the two holy cities. In this country the concept of tolerance is quite peculiar. Theoretically speaking, they respect Christianity. In reality, there is no chance of actively living the faith". A woman tells us that "up until a few years ago foreign people were able to organise a clandestine Easter Mass. I have participated once to that Mass. Usually, we used to spend the weekend in Barhain, where there is religious freedom, and Christians are allowed to celebrate Mass. On that particular occasion we decided to go to the clandestine Mass, which took place in a private house. The priest was wearing paraments, but everything was absolutely done in a haste. It was clear that people were completely scared. That was a special occasion, though. As a matter of fact, it is impossible to have Mass every week. Priests enter the country incognito and they work as everybody else. I remember when the authorities unmasked a missionary. They beat him up, jailed him and eventually forced him to leave the country. I also remember that a Catholic man from the Philippines was put to death for organising a Mass in his house. In Saudi Arabia they execute people in the central square of the cities and then they expose the corpses as they were trophies. I have seen these horrible things with my own eyes. You become aware of religious intolerance as soon as you enter the country. At our arrival at the airport, the police opened our luggage and confiscated a small wooden cross from my husband. He never had it back".

Daily life is difficult too. There are so many rules and taboos. A man who has worked in Saudi Arabia for a few years tells us about sexual discrimination. "Public places, such as restaurants and shopping centers, are divided in different areas. Normally, there is an area for men, one for women and another one for families. Even checking out of supermarkets implies joining different lines". The following testimony has been given by a woman who has lived in the country for several years. "I was in a shopping center with my husband. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of standing in a women reserved area. The religious authority passionately forced him to leave. In another occasion, I have been hit with a stick because the scarf I was forced to wear on my head fell down. Like local women, I could not leave the house by myself. My husband had always to come with me. When he could not, I was only allowed to go out by car, but I had to go with the chauffeur and other women. I cannot forget what happened when my husband tried to help a woman who had fallen down in the middle of the road. Fortunately, he did not touch her, otherwise he could have had serious problems".

Women live a miserable life in Saudi Arabia. According to another Western woman who lives in the Middle-East country "girls can go to school, but they cannot work. They are forced to hide themselves under heavy clothes since they are 9-10 years old. They are denied the right to have a happy infancy and youth". Sometimes, girls from rich families go to study abroad, often in Western countries. "I remember – says a man – that a Saudi businessman sent his two daughters to study in Europe. He was quite perplexed about this choice, as once they would have gone back, they could do nothing with what they had learned".


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