US groups to picket for release of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia

The Ethiopian community in Washington, D.C. and Christian supporters of a group of Ethiopian Christians detained in Saudi Arabia plan to hold a protest in front of the Saudi embassy next week.
The supporters call for the release of a group of 35 Ethiopian Christians detained on Dec. 15, reportedly unlawfully, in Jeddah, a city on the western coast of the Saudi kingdom, while the group was holding a prayer meeting at a private home. The protest will be held on Feb. 21.

“We urge all those concerned in the Washington, D.C. area to participate in this protest. Saudi Arabian officials have refused to release the Christians despite quiet diplomatic pressure,” Jonathan Racho, Regional Manager for Africa at International Christian Concern (ICC), an advocacy group and one of the protest’s organizers, said in a statement emailed to The Christian Post. “We must raise our voices and demand the Saudis release the prisoners who were imprisoned simply for praying together.”

The group was not informed of specific charges or their legal status, according to ICC, except for the authorities stating the reason of arrest to be the men and women meeting together in private, which is frowned upon in the conservative Muslim country, but not illegal, said the advocacy group.

According to ICC, which spoke directly with the prisoners, the Christian men and women claim that they were violently arrested and currently experience attempts at conversion to Islam while in prison. The prisoners recently reported that a Muslim preacher was sent by officials to speak to them about converting to Islam, ICC said. The preacher reportedly also vilified Christianity and denigrated the Bible.

“These are law-abiding Ethiopian citizens. They were simply arrested for practicing their faith at a private home,” Kebadu Belachew, an Ethiopian-American human rights activist and one of the organizers of the rally, told ICC. “The Saudi government should set them free. We are organizing this protest as part of the effort to set them free.”

When the news of the arrest broke, CP attempted to contact the Saudi embassy, but messages were not returned.

The prisoners told ICC that they only wish to be released and return to their country to worship freely. Through the Christian human rights group, the prisoners appealed to the international Christian community for support.

The detained Christians all came to Saudi Arabia from Ethiopia in order to find work. Some of them do not have a legal work permit, according to ICC. Some of the Ethiopians have been living in the Saudi kingdom for 16 years, while others are newer arrivals, according to Human Rights Watch.

The situation has already attracted international attention and was reported on by BBC News and Human Rights Watch.

Saudi Arabia officially has a 100 percent Muslim population, but according to unofficial sources, Christianity is practiced by about 3.5 percent of the total population and Hinduism is practiced by 0.6 percent of the population. The followers of Baha’i are said to add up to about 0.1 percent.

In its 2011 report on global religious freedom, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Saudi Arabia be put on the U.S. Department of State’s list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC), that is, countries where serious religious rights violations have been reported.

Although Islam is the main religion, religious minorities are usually allowed to host unofficial meetings at private homes, sources have told CP. The arrest of Christians during a meeting at home is considered unusual by experts.