Press Release April 2, 2002
Last Detained Christian to be Released in Saudi Arabia
Speaks of His Ordeal
“One day in prison did more for me than all my years as a Christian.”
Dennis Moreno-Lacalle was the last of 14 Christians released from prison in Saudi Arabia. The 14 Christians had been detained since early July on account of their suspected involvement in private Christian meetings. On March 30, without notice and just hours before Easter celebrations took place in churches worldwide, Dennis was released from the Brimen Deportation Prison in Jeddah and deported to Manila.
The evening before, an Ethiopian Christian, Worku Aweke, was taken from Jeddah’s Brimen Deportation Prison and deported to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. On March 7, within hours of an announcement that was issued by International Christian Concern (ICC), a Washington, DC based human rights group, expressing concern about Worku’s whereabouts and whether or not he was dead or alive, Worku suddenly appeared at the Brimen Deportation Prison.
At the request of the Muslim religious authorities, Dennis and the other 13 Christians were arrested by the Saudi Department of Security and Intelligence without formal charges ever filed against them. The allegations against them were that that they had been involved in “illegal Christian activities.”
Speaking by telephone from Manila, Dennis thanked ICC for being the first to advocate for his release and that of the other 13 Christians. Dennis and Worku were among 14 foreign Christians, citizens of India, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Philippines, who participated in expatriate Christian meetings in private homes. Beginning in January, six months after the first arrest, the Saudi government began releasing and deporting the men. All of them have lost their jobs and many of their work benefits. Saudi Arabia enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic law that forbids non-Muslims from conducting Christian meetings, despite statements made by Prince Turki in Arabic newspapers and at the United Nations that Christians are free to meet in their homes.
Dennis was arrested on August 29, 2001. While being interrogated, he was told he must sign a statement that was written in Arabic. He was offered no interpreter, legal representation, access to an embassy consulate. He was told that he must sign the statement before he could be released. Dennis signed the statement, expecting that he would then be released. His release did not come until seven months later.
Dennis described the last two and one half months of his time in the deportation prison as being worse than the 13 days he had spent in solitary confinement at the Mubahyis prison. Dennis reported that the deportation prison held 1080 inmates, all crowded into one cell measuring approximately 80’X 40′ with only three square feet of space for each prisoner. “It was so cramped that sometimes prisoners would have to stand for two days without ever sleeping,” Dennis added. “There were even prisoners sleeping in the toilet, which was filthy. Because of the lack of space, prisoners would even store their tea bags in the unsanitary toilet.”
“We were not allowed to pray or sing. Not only were we not allowed to pray or sing together, we were mocked and verbally abused by the guards and Muslim terrorists, including members of Al-Qaeda.”
Dennis described the conditions during his first five months of imprisonment. “At first we were denied visits from family members and were not even allowed to have a Bible. During the last weeks of confinement, before being moved to the Brimen Deportation Prison, at which time we thought we would soon be released, we were allowed to receive a Bible and could pray and sing aloud. One account shared by Dennis involved the experience of Ethiopian Christian Bahru Mengistu when he was detained in solitary confinement at the Mubahyis Prison. Dennis recounted Bahru’s story of a guard who fell on the floor as he entered into the cell where Bahru was praying and worshipping God. The moment the guard came in, the guard fell on the floor. Bahru called the other guards to come and pick him up. He was never bothered again while he was praying. Dennis said that the treatment at the deportation prison was much worse. “We were slapped, verbally abused, and told to be quiet. We were not allowed to pray or sing aloud. “On January 28, I saw the brutal flogging of the three Ethiopian Christians, Tinsaie Gizachew, Bahru Mengistu and Gebeyehu Tefera. They were kicked, suspended with chains, and lashed 80 times with a steel rod about one inch in diameter that was wrapped with plastic tape.” The cruel beatings left the three men bleeding and in severe pain.
Following his release, Bahru Mengistu told ICC that he fell unconscious during the flogging. He continues to have blood in his urine as a result of the beatings he received. Dennis told ICC that the real reason for the flogging and beatings was because the three exposed corruption in the prison. Responsible for the corruption and in turn the flogging of the three Christians was the prison commander, Major Bandar Sultan Al-Shabani.
Dennis described how his interrogators would try to persuade him to convert to Islam. “If you convert, we will release you right away,” they promised. Dennis replied, “Why do you pick on us Christians when there are many Muslims committing crimes by taking drugs and drinking alcohol, which is also illegal?” The reply from the interrogator was, “The government is afraid to act Islam is getting weak.”
When asked how he managed to keep his faith while in prison, Dennis told ICC: “On March 24, while in the deportation prison, when I came to the point that I wondered if I would ever be released, the Lord visited me in a dream. In the dream the Lord said, ‘You are a man of God, so do not fear for I will deliver you.’ I received great comfort and encouragement from this visitation of the Lord. I also received encouragement from the other brothers, such as Benjamin (Nigerian Christian, Afobunor Okey Buliamin). He told me, ‘the devil is trying to kill our spirit, to kill the seed planted in us, but he cannot kill what God has planted.'”
Dennis went on to say, “When I was in solitary confinement for those 13 days, I thought maybe God was mad at me for some reason. But instead God assured me that He was not mad at me, but instead that this was His way to humble me and to show me how much He loved me. Truly, I can say that I am more grateful for those days in prison than all my years of being a Christian. I am now more hungry for God and I realize how much more I need to pray to be humble.”
Dennis’s release and the earlier release of the other 13 Christians was a “miracle” according to Dennis. “I learned that the Ministry of Interior had planned to keep all of us in prison for three years. However, due to outside intervention, we received a pardon by the King. The princes in ‘high places’ were disturbed about tarnishing Saudi Arabia’s image in the international community as a result of our continued imprisonment. Intervention on our behalf did indeed help!”
When Dennis was asked what he would like to say as his final words to Christians who prayed for him, he said: “I want to say to ICC and all who prayed for me and advocated for my release, thank you and may God bless you and remember you because you remembered me; you did just as Jesus said as it is recorded in Matthew when He said, ‘I was in prison and you came to me.’ God rewarded those who visited and helped those who were in prison.” Concerning his own personal needs, Dennis asked: “Please pray for my emotional healing, and for what God would have me to do next.”
In his closing remarks Dennis added, “I would like to say to the men, love your wives. I love my wife Yolly more and trust her more than ever before. She carried a great burden while I was in prison.”