BERLIN – Saudi Arabia deported 35 Ethiopian Christians last week after incarcerating them for over seven months for praying in advance of the Christmas season in December 2011, according to Christian media outlets and NGOs.

International Christian Concern wrote on its website that “Saudi Arabia deported the last of the 35 Ethiopian Christians who were detained for holding an all-night prayer vigil.

Saudi security officials assaulted, harassed and pressured the Christians to convert to Islam during their incarceration.”

“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 Ethiopians told ICC.

“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.”

On December 15, Saudi authorities raided a private religious function in Jeddah, a city on the Red Sea coast in western Saudi Arabia, and arrested 35 Ethiopian Christian workers.

According to human rights groups and the US government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom, the 29 women and six men faced beatings and sexual assault.

The commission noted that “some of the men detained have alleged that they were physically abused during interrogations and the female detainees reportedly were subjected to intrusive and humiliating body cavity searches. While no formal charges have been made, the detainees reportedly were charged with ‘illicit mingling’ with the opposite sex. Saudi authorities informed sponsors of some of the detainees that their employees were being held because of illegal religious activities. The detainees also reportedly face imminent deportation.”

Since 2004, the US State Department has described Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” for its repression of religious freedom.

The imprisonment of the 35 Ethiopians garnered scarce media attention.

The ICC spearheaded a campaign in Washington to force the Saudis to release them.

“This incident underscores the troubling reality that there is no religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. The fact is that in Saudi Arabia a person is not free to practice their faith even in the privacy of their own home. While Saudi Arabia strictly bans all public displays of faith that are not Islamic, storming into a private home and imprisoning immigrants exposes the real nature of religious freedom in the kingdom – it doesn’t exist unless you’re a Muslim who practices a government-approved Islamic faith,” Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the Washington- based American Center for Law and Justice, wrote to The Jerusalem Post by email on Saturday.

Sekulow, whose organization works to promote religious freedom abroad, added, “Also disturbing is the all-too-common tactic used by governments to alter charges placed against Christians. Such a move does nothing to conceal the fact that these Christians are being persecuted for their faith. No matter how the government attempts to position their persecution, the fact is clear – Christians are labeled criminals because of their faith. Saudi Arabia is one of a number of nations that fails to protect the rights of religious minorities – including Christians and Jews.

“While efforts to protect religious freedom in Saudi Arabia are woefully inadequate, it is our hope that that incidents like this one will call attention to this growing problem in Saudi Arabia and other countries.”

In an email to the Post on Saturday, Ben Cohen, a New York-based journalist who has written extensively on persecution of Christians, wrote, “The history of relations between the Saudis and the West is a shabby history of collusion with religious intolerance.

“In March this year, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh, declared that it was necessary to ‘destroy all the churches in the region.’” Cohen, who co-wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal last week on Iran’s persecution of Christians, added, “This week, you have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying, ‘Religious freedom is a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority.’ These are fundamentally contradictory messages, and I don’t see that the Saudi monarchy and clerics are remotely sensitive to our standpoint – and they won’t be until we start exercising real diplomatic and economic pressure.”

The Saudi government assured the international community in 2006 that it would guarantee religious freedom in the kingdom where only Islam is permitted to be practiced.

The Saudi government advocates a radical form of Sunni Islam that is frequently embraced by terrorists.

On ICC’s website, the organization’s Jonathan Racho said, “Saudi Arabian officials clearly demonstrated their utter disregard for religious freedom by arresting, mistreating and deporting the Christians for holding a prayer meeting. The Saudis deceive the international community by pretending to promote tolerance among followers of different religious beliefs; however, in reality they don’t tolerate any other religion besides Wahhabi Islam. The international community must pressure Saudi Arabia to respect religious freedom.”

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger