WASHINGTON (BP) -- Saudi Arabia has deported the last of 35 Ethiopian Christians who were arrested during a December prayer meeting and imprisoned during the ensuing months.
Meanwhile, a 28-year-old female reportedly has become the first Saudi woman to announce publicly by video she has converted from Islam to Christianity.
The now-deported Ethiopian Christians -- 29 women and six men -- were praying Dec. 15 in the city of Jeddah when Saudi police raided the private home in which they were meeting. On Aug. 1, the Saudis completed deportation of the Ethiopians, according to International Christian Concern (ICC). Some of the Ethiopians had lived in Saudi Arabia for as many as 16 years prior to their arrests.
Saudi officials assaulted, harassed and sought to coerce the Christians to convert to Islam while in prison, ICC reported. They strip-searched the women, including searches of their body cavities, and physically abused the men, some of the Ethiopians told ICC by phone during their imprisonment.
A Muslim preacher came to the prison at authorities' request in February in an effort to persuade the Christians to leave their faith, according to ICC.
"The Muslim preacher vilified Christianity, denigrated the Bible and told us that Islam is the only true religion," a female prisoner told ICC by phone. "The preacher told us to convert to Islam. When the preacher asked us, we didn't deny ... our Christian faith."
Saudi Arabia -- which bars all public expressions of religious belief other than an extremely strict interpretation of Islam referred to as Wahhabism -- is one of the world's worst violators of religious liberty. The U.S. State Department has designated the Middle East state as a "country of particular concern," a designation reserved for governments that are particularly severe in violating religious freedom.
The Saudi government, which prohibits all non-Muslim houses of worship, has said since 2006 it permits worship held privately in house churches, but its actions regarding the Ethiopian Christians appear to be part of mounting evidence its assertion is false.
"Saudi Arabian officials clearly demonstrated their utter disregard for religious freedom by arresting, mistreating and deporting the Christians for holding a prayer meeting," said Jonathan Racho, ICC's regional manager for Africa, in an Aug. 3 written statement. "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."
In February, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged the Ethiopians' release, but its plea failed to move the Saudis to free the Christians.
The newly converted Saudi woman appeared in an online video in her Hijab, or head covering and veil, to confess her faith in Christ, Mohabat News reported Aug. 5.
In the short video, the 28-year-old introduced herself as "Maryam" and said, "I have quit the darkness of Wahhabi Islam and entered the light of Christianity. I dreamt that I needed to do this. Jesus Christ came to visit me in my dream and gave me the name of Maryam (Arabic pronunciation of Mary).
"The morality police's treatment caused me to not take fasting and prayer seriously and to eventually convert to Christianity," she said, according to Mohabat News.
Saudi's "morality police" are responsible for enforcing Wahhabism.
The video's online posting angered Saudi government and religious officials, who urged steps be taken to halt Christian evangelism in the country, the report said.
"Maryam" wore her Hijab to conceal her identity and protect her life, she said in the video.
Mohabat News describes itself as the news agency for Iranian Christians.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress
) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp