By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA (BosNewsLife)– Two Indian Christians of a thriving Pentecostal house church in Saudi Arabia have been moved from pre-trial detention to a prison in the Saudi capital Ryadh where they are “forbidden to pray or read the Bible” and “suffer of a lack of food and medical attention,” an elder of the church told BosNewsLife Sunday April 10.
Vasantha Sekhar Vara, 28, and Nese Yohan, 31, who are members of the “Rejoice in the Church of the Lord” congregation, were initially detained in January and received 45-days of “pre-trial detention” on charges of attempted Christian conversion, also known as “proselytizing”, said the church elder speaking from Riyadh in a telephone interview.
“They were later moved from the police station to [a notorious] central jail in Riyadh without a trial,” he added. He said it was not known when and if the trial will start.
The elder asked not to be identified as he is still involved in negotiating their release and Saudi security forces have raided his church.
“We were crying when we met each other in the prison facility last week,” he said, his voice trembling. “They are forbidden to pray or read the Bible. Our brothers’ head hair was shaved and they look very thin. They don’t receive enough food. Yohan is coughing, perhaps because of Tuberculosis, but he is denied medical treatment. The world should know about their plight.”
The church official said the two young men can barely sleep in the overcrowded jail. “They are the only known Christians there who are imprisoned for their faith. The other inmates are criminals.”
In India, Vara’s pastor, Ajay Kuma Jeldi, said earlier in published remarks that Vara had told him by telephone that he had been pressured in prison to convert to Islam, but had refused. “If I have to die for my God, I will die for him here,” Vara reportedly said.
Vara and Yohan were detained in January when they organized a Bible study group in one of the apartments where their 70-strong church of mainly Indian expat workers gathers, the elder speaking to BosNewsLife confirmed.
“Saudi religious police and other police also confiscated Bibles and other christian literature as well as the church’s sound installation and instruments, such as guitars, during the raid. They even broke furniture, suit cases, and painted what I believe were Koran verses on the walls” of the apartment where the church met, he added.
The elder said the two men’s “families back in India are very concerned about our brothers.”
Pentecostal church members are often referred to as “brothers” or “sisters” in reference to Biblical teaching that those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are children of God, the Heavenly Father.
The Indian embassy has not yet provided legal assistance and did not openly pressure Saudi authorities to release the two Indian citizens, reportedly describing the case as an “internal religious affair.”
The church has not been able to hire a lawyer, the church elder told BosNewsLife. “Our congregation is made up of workers who each have a small salary. There is simply no money to hire an expensive lawyer to defend out brothers in court.”
Despite the difficulties and threats of more arrests, the church elder said his congregation continues worshiping in different locations, and even baptizes new believers. “We have to continue to praise the Lord, what else can we do? This is a lively church. There is also an interest among people of other religions to attend our services.”
Rights groups say Saudi Arabia, a strict Islamic nation, has a long history of cracking down on Christians. In 2004, 28 Indian workers were reportedly arrested for practicing Christianity. The charges were eventually dropped, but in 2010 brought up again leading to the deportation of one worker, while another person was arrested, according to rights investigators.
In another case, 16 Indian workers were allegedly arrested in February 2008, and then released after three days. In 2010, eight left the country of their own accord and three of the remaining eight were reportedly issued deportation orders and expelled.
A recent United States State Department report on religious freedom expressed concerns about the situation of religious minorities in the country.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner said the public practice of non-Muslim religions remains prohibited, and that the Saudi government has not acted on pledges to rid textbooks of religious incitement.
“…There still continues to be in the Saudi textbooks, references, very negative, stereotypical references to Christians, Jews and others, which regard as offensive,” he told reporters following the presentation of the report in November.
Saudi authorities have denied human rights abuses and recently urged political activists not to repeat pro-democracy demonstrations that have engulfed other Arabic nations.
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 Araba, where many foreigners are Christians.
In 2009, BosNewsLife already cited Netherlands-based Arabische Wereld Zending, or ‘Arabic World Mission,’ as saying that Christians have set up an underground church in Mecca, viewed by Muslims as the “holiest city in Islam”, while tens of thousands of other Saudi Christians are worshiping via the Internet.
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