Saudi Arabia: Where the public display of bibles can lead to arrest – An interview with Camille Eid
Camille Eid, professor at the University of Milan, describes the persecution Christians endure in Saudi Arabia to Aid to the Church in Need in this excellent interview.
4/4/2011 Saudi Arabia (Aid to the Church in Need) – 26 million people live in Saudi Arabia. Over 95% are Muslim and Christians make up a little more than 3% of the total population. In Saudi Arabia the practice of any other religion except fundamentalist Sunni Islam is forbidden; prohibition of professing any other religion than Islam is grounded on the belief that Saudi Arabia is holy ground.
Temples, churches, pagodas are prohibited, as well as public displays of religious objects and private religious gatherings.
The following is an interview with Prof. Camille Eid, journalist, author, professor at the University of Milan and expert on the Middle Eastern Churches.
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: 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: 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.
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.