08/05/2004, 00.00
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O'Connor, a Christian from India, may soon be free

Solidarity from the whole Christian world. Bishop of Arabia: "Ours is a catacomb Church".

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – "I am confident that the Lord will turn this mess into a message and my test into a testimony," said Brian Savio O'Connor when he greeted two representatives from the Indian Embassy in Riyadh who recently visited him in prison. O'Connor is an Indian Catholic jailed for allegedly preaching Christianity.

AsiaNews spoke by telephone with Dr Naharan, who saw O'Connor in al-Hair prison on July 25. "I found O'Connor in reasonable physical conditions but he did suffer a lot," Dr Naharan reported. "He said he had not yet been told on what charges he was arrested. The Saudi Muttawa or religious police accuses him of preaching Christianity and possessing liquor."

There is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Any non Muslim religious activity is strictly forbidden. "Spreading Christianity in Arabia is illegal," Naharan added. "We do not know for certain that O' Connor is charged with this crime. We wrote to Saudi authorities in April asking them to explain why O'Connor was arrested – We do this for every Indian national arrested –, but so far the Saudis have not answered."

According to Middle East Concern, O'Connor was visited on July 26 by a representative of Prince Salman Ibn Abdul Aziz, governor of Riyadh Region. The Saudi official spoke with the prisoner for about an hour and told him that he should be released within two weeks and be back on the job or on his way to India.

Brian Savio O'Connor was taken into custody on March 25 in a Riyadh street by Muttawa agents. He was first brought to a mosque where he was beaten and tortured.  Speaking to some of his visitors O'Connor said: "My legs were chained and I was hung upside down. My captors alternately kicked and beat me in the chest and ribs.

The Indian national was not only accused selling spirits and preaching about Jesus Christ but also of drug use. And he was threatened with death if he did not renounce his faith.

For O'Connor's family the police trumped up the drug charges. For them Brian is known as an outstanding citizen and a good Christian in the Indian expatriate community in Saudi Arabia.

John Dayal, Secretary General of the All India Christian Council and a Catholic activist, brought the case to the attention of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud asking him to free O'Connor. The campaign in favour of O'Connor's release was eventually picked up by several Italian and US websites, AsiaNews included. Stranocristiano, an Italian website, launched a summer campaign to mail solidarity postcards to the prisoner. US-based Freedom House called on US Secretary of State Colin Powell to raise the O'Connor case with the Saudi government.

Asked about O'Connor's imprisonment, Msgr. Paul Hinder, Auxiliary Bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia, said that the local Church "has not received any official information about the case and thus has not taken any official step." However, Monsignor Hinder went on to say that "the Church in Saudi Arabia is a catacomb church, an image that accurately describes the situation in which Christians live: no freedoms, absolute silence and total concealment." The bishop further said: "All the Church can do is help the underground communities live their faith in silence and secret." (LF)

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See also
For the first time Riyadh on US list of states violating freedom of religion
US Commission calls for sanctions against Vietnam and Saudi Arabia for violating religious freedom
Brian O'Connor: "My story, a Christian in a Saudi jail"
Ten months in jail and 300 lashes for Christian prisoner O'Connor
A catacomb Church? Perhaps, but one that is alive and well . . . and universal