Living in Secret in Saudi Arabia from Zenit.org
Interview With Scholar on Churches in the Middle East
Saudi Arabia is considered holy ground by the Muslim majority who live there. Hence, Christians and even Muslims of other sects, face severe restrictions.
Christians make up only about 3% of the population, but they have no churches and never display their faith in public.
Professor Camille Eid, a journalist, author, professor at the University of Milan and expert on the Churches of the Middle East, spoke about the Saudi Arabia situation with the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.
Q: Saudi Arabia is a hereditary monarchy based on the foundation of Wahhabi Islam. What is this branch of Islam?
Eid: Wahhabism is a new doctrine of Islam. Its founder is Abd-al Wahhab, who was a religious scholar of Hanafi Islam, which is the strictest doctrine of Islam. He decided that all innovations — “Bida” is the term in Arabic — in Islam should be eliminated. A visit to a cemetery for instance is considered a bida-innovation and is prohibited. You cannot do anything that the Prophet Mohammed and his companions did not do. So the alliance between the followers of Wahhabi and the prince of Najd in central Arabia created the birth of this Saudi Arabian kingdom. Saudi Arabia takes its name from the Saud family. This house of Saud alliance with the Wahhabi sect is still true today and the successors of the kingdom follow this strict instruction and doctrine of Wahhabism; the laws of the kingdom follow the strict guidelines of Wahhabism.
Q: What about the Shia?
Eid: The Shia make up almost 10% of the population and they face much discrimination. They are concentrated mainly in the eastern part of the kingdom. There is another sect of the Shia, the Ismaili, and they are very near the Yemeni border. The kingdom and its leadership subscribe to Wahhabism.
Q: The Quran is Saudi Arabia’s constitution. What position does the Quran or this constitution take toward non-Muslims?
Eid: The Quran distinguishes between Christians and Jews, and other unbelievers. Christians and Jews are called the “People of the Book,” or the books if you want — the Gospel and the Torah. Sometimes in the Quran, Christians are described in a very positive way. The Christian monarch and priests pray. But, during the second period in the Prophet’s revelation, Christians are described as unbelievers and [it’s said they] should pay the “Jizya,” the tax necessary to be protected in an Islamic society. There seems to be a contradiction in the book itself. That is why we have a liberal and a violent Islam. The violent Islam is a result of the second revelation that occurred during the last reign of Mohammed and as a result the current Islamic societies state that the events of the second revelation should be followed and not the previous revelations, which are more tolerant.
Q: The government is built on the principles of Sharia. What is Sharia? Eid: Sharia is the summa of the Quran, the Hadith, which are the statements of Mohammed, and other sources such as the Ishma, which is the consensus of all Islamic scholars (Ulema). Sharia Law is taken from all these.
Q: All residents who live in Saudi Arabia are subjected to the law of Sharia?
Eid: All residents are subjected to this law and you cannot object because it is tantamount to objecting to Islam. Upon arrival at the airport you are informed immediately that you are to abide by the strict Islamic laws. I as a Christian, for instance, had a Pepsi in my hand during Ramadan. I noticed that everybody was looking at me in a certain way and they could have beaten me. You cannot eat outside or in public during the fast. You can only eat in secret. So you have to observe the fast even if you are not Muslim because that is the law.
Q: Christians constitute the biggest non-Muslim group in Saudi Arabia. How do Christians live their faith in Saudi Arabia?
Eid: In secret. It is forbidden to have Bibles, religious images and rosaries; if they are detected at the airport they are immediately confiscated. There was an instance when I was at the Jeddah Airport with a videocassette and they asked to view this cassette. The video was about Spartacus. I was suddenly fearful that they would see the image of the crucifixion. The guard eventually allowed it because it was a soldier being crucified and not Jesus Christ. … It is hard. They say that Christians can pray privately but what does private mean? Does it mean alone or with your family? When more than two, or a group of families, are praying together in the privacy of their home the religious police can come in and intervene and arrest them.
Q: What happens to the Christian that is caught with a rosary in their pocket or wearing a cross?
Eid: If it is in a pocket nobody can see it. If, however you are seen wearing a cross, any Muslim — and not just the police — can take it away. You will be arrested and risk expulsion from the kingdom. They will haul you to prison and after a few days you will be issued an exit visa. It will be over for you.
Q: What other kind of Christian activities are punishable by law?
Eid: All public manifestation of any faith other than Islam is punishable. They do know that the Americans, French and Italians celebrate the Mass for Christmas and Easter inside the embassies but because the embassy is extra-territorial, the law does not apply. The police, however, are around to monitor. There are no churches, synagogues or temples in the kingdom. All manifestations of other faiths are prohibited.
Q: Who enforces the law?
Eid: You have 5,000 religious police divided among 100 districts, but any Muslim can enforce the law by denouncing the individual. I spent two and half years in Jeddah; I was afraid to extend the Easter and Christmas greetings even via phone because I was afraid that someone might be listening. The religious police control everything including the bookshops because it is prohibited to sell any card with non-Muslim themes. Some years ago in the American school, a Santa Claus was almost arrested but he managed to escape through a window. It is prohibited.
Q: Are Christians a particular target of persecution or discrimination?
Eid: Not just Christians but the non-Wahhabi versions of Islam such as the Shia or Ismaili. Not all Christian communities suffer equally. American, Italian, French and British — in fact most Europeans and other First World countries — suffer less because they know that these countries are powerful and will intervene immediately to protect their citizens. So they target the Christians of the Third World like Eritrea, India and the Philippines. These countries fear the loss of revenue from their citizens living in the kingdom. So they target the Christians of these weaker Third World countries.
Q: It has been said that Filipino maids have been accused of communicating the faith to the children of the wealthy Saudis that employ them. Do you know anything about this?
Eid: The Islamic catechism talks about the risk of communicating faith. The Saudi version states: “When you go abroad you should not develop a relationship or friendship with your professors because you should remember that they are infidels.” This criterion also applies to the Filipino women in Saudi Arabia. Any communication can only occur by testimony not by words.
Q: Only through witness?
Eid: Only through witness and that is why they have suggested substituting Filipinos, or Christian women in general, with Egyptian, Moroccan or Algerian women so that they cannot communicate the faith to the children.
Q: We have talked about discrimination. We have talked about persecution. How far can this persecution go?
Eid: To death. We have a case of the martyrdom of a Saudi girl who converted to Christianity. Her brother discovered her. She wrote a poem to Christ and she had her tongue cut, she disappeared and was later found dead. Her name was Fatima Al-Mutairi and this happened in August of 2008. In 2008 two cases of raids by the religious police saw men, women and children less than 3 years old arrested. We have many reports of torture; before they are deported to their country these Filipinos, Indians and Eritreans are tortured by the police in the prisons.
Q: You mentioned the case of Fatima who converted to Christianity. What is the number of Muslims converting? Do you have any information or is it impossible to know?
Eid: It is not possible. Saudi society is difficult to penetrate because the regime monitors every activity. Sometimes you notice this from the women’s perspective. When these Saudi women go abroad, even upon entry in the airplane, they remove the hijab. In Lebanon and other countries they drink alcohol. When they return to their country they know that that have to abide by the laws.
Q: … and converts?
Eid: Christian converts do exist. I follow the Arabic media channels, which broadcast to Saudi Arabia and the whole Arab world, and during the transmission many calls originate from Saudi Arabia. Those converts who travel to Morocco and Egypt talk about their experience but do not mention their names and request only that the Christian community pray for them because they desire to see the day when they will be allowed to go to a church, to be able to have access to the Gospels and to be able to share their new faith with their own family. If a convert informs his/her brother or father of his/her new faith, he or she faces the danger of being charged with treason by the family; a treason not only of one’s family but also to the nation and society in general. Apostasy is a question of honor and as such it is considered treason.
Q: Professor Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Quran scholar, stated that within the Quran, there is no obligation to kill an apostate. Where does this expression of violence come from?
Eid: Exactly. In the 14th [book] of the Quran there is talk about apostasy but there is no talk of a penalty in this life but rather in the second life. This change comes from the Hadith of Mohammed in which he said that whomever changes religion should be killed. But a problem again arises from this, because with the thousands of Hadith, there is no proof that Mohammed actually said this. Many Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran and Yemen, and so on, apply the death penalty based on a Hadith that can’t be a hundred percent proven that it is from Mohammed.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the lay Catholics living in Saudi Arabia?
Eid: It is hard to be a lay Catholic in Saudi Arabia because you have to have a very deep background in your faith. You cannot have copies of the Gospel in your home. You cannot have a rosary. You cannot have contact with your Christian friends as a community; you can have Christian friends, you can frequent the foreign communities but you are prohibited from talking about your faith. So the only possibility is to have a strong awareness and knowledge of your faith that you can bank on in this environment. In other Islamic countries Friday is a holiday so Mass as a community [is allowed], but not on Sunday because Sunday is considered a working day; but even this is not the case in Saudi Arabia. So you are a community by yourself. Usually you do not even have your own family because Saudi Arabia has restrictions on family reunification. If you have a daughter who is more than 18 years of age, she cannot stay in Saudi Arabia if she is not married. So most have their families somewhere else. So you are alone and with no contact to other Catholics, which is very hard, and so you have to have the strength of faith in your heart; to be able to pray with out the prayer books, to just know and pray the prayers you have learned by heart from your childhood.
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.