By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (BosNewsLife)-- Saudi Arabia has deported all 35 Ethiopian Christians who were detained last year for holding an all-night prayer vigil, rights activists involved in the case confirmed Friday, August 3.
Advocacy organization International Christian Concern (ICC) told BosNewsLife in a statement that the last group of Ethiopian detainees was forced to leave the country on August 1.
"We have arrived home safe. We believe that we are released as the result of the pressure exerted by ICC and others,” one of the released prisoners was quoted as saying. BosNewsLife News Agency also covered the story extensively.
“The Saudi officials don’t tolerate any other religions other than Islam. They consider non-Muslims as unbelievers. They are full of hatred towards non-Muslims,” the unidentified former detainee added in published remarks.
There was no official comment from Saudi officials. Rights investigators claimed Saudi security officials assaulted, harassed and pressured the Christians to convert to Islam during their incarceration.
The Christians were detained on December 15, 2011 while holding a prayer service at a private home. Saudi officials originally accused the Christians of ‘mixing with opposite gender’ but when pressured by U.S. officials, reportedly have other reasons for the detention, including staying in the country "illegally" and "engaging in drug and human trafficking."
ICC said it believes pressure from the United States played a key role in the release of the Christians. ICC representative Jonathan Racho said however that “Saudi Arabian officials clearly demonstrated their utter disregard for religious freedom by arresting, mistreating and deporting the Christians for holding a prayer meeting."
He accused the Saudi government of deceiving the international community "by pretending to promote tolerance among followers of different religious beliefs" while " in reality they don’t tolerate any other religion besides Wahhabi Islam." The latest case, he suggested, underscores that the "international community must pressure Saudi Arabia to respect religious freedom.”
There have been several cases of foreign Christians pressured to seize worship activities, BosNewsLife established.
Earlier last year, two Indian Christians of a thriving Pentecostal house church in Saudi Arabia were deported after they were unexpectedly released by Saudi officials from an overcrowded prison, a church official confirmed to BosNewsLife at the time.
Vasantha Sekhar Vara, 28, and Nese Yohan, 31, who are members of the Riyadh-based 'Rejoice in the Church of the Lord' congregation, were detained in January, 2011, while organizing a Bible study group in one of the apartments where their 70-strong church of mainly Indian expat workers gathered.
Both devoted believers soon received 45-days of "pre-trial detention" on charges of attempted Christian conversion, also known as "proselytizing", the church said. At least scores of other Christians are known to have been detained and deported in recent year.
The Middle East nation of over 26 million people is officially 100 percent Muslim, but as in other Arabic countries, there have been reports of a growing interest in Christianity in Saudi Arabia, according to church and advocacy groups.
Saudi authorities have denied human rights abuses, but have urged political activists not to repeat pro-democracy demonstrations that have engulfed other Arabic nations.