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05/24/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The sentencing of a Lebanese Christian to lashings and imprisonment for converting a Saudi coworker puts the spotlight on the laws of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its firm resistance to reason or political persuasion.
On May 12, a Lebanese man was sentenced to 300 lashings with a whip and six years in prison, for his part in encouraging a Saudi Muslim to convert to Christianity and his subsequent role in helping her flee to Sweden to secure religious asylum. A Saudi man, who was also involved in the conversion and escape, was sentenced to 200 lashings and two years in prison.
The woman was an employee of an insurance company in the eastern district of Khobar, and the two men were her colleagues. In July 2012, the two men were arrested on charges of forcible conversion following charges laid against them by the girl’s father, who says that the Lebanese man had “shaken her convictions” and inspired misconceptions about Islam.
According to the local Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution (BIP), the story dates back to when the young woman struck up a friendship with her Saudi colleague and then the Lebanese man. The three would meet up from time to time, the girl fell in love with the young Lebanese who gave her books and invited her to follow a religious chat room. Subsequently, she converted to Christ and fled to Lebanon.
Her father claimed that she even left the country illegally. Under Saudi law, in fact, a woman cannot have a passport without the permission of her “guardian” i.e. father, husband or brother. They claimed that the two men helped her leave the country via Bahrain, using false documents.
Her identity has not been disclosed, although she is now known as “the girl of Khobar.” After fleeing Saudi Arabia, she was granted refuge in Sweden where she lives under the protection of unspecified NGOs, according to local press reports in Saudi Arabia.
‘Peace in Christianity’
In July 2012, speaking from Lebanon, she defended her new faith and claimed that the Church was her only home. She criticized Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy for instilling in her a hatred of Judaism and Christianity, according to the English-language Saudi Gazette. The Jeddah-based paper wrote that she “fell in love with the religions after she found peace in Christianity.” She publicly declared her faith in Christ through a YouTube video, after dreaming about climbing to the sky and hearing God say that Jesus is his Son, according to the Gazette.
Almost a year after their arrest, the two men were sentenced to lashings and imprisonment for assisting in her conversion and escape to Sweden. Hmood al-Khalidi, the lawyer for the girl’s family, expressed satisfaction with the severe punishments, which is only the natural legal outcome in a country where proselytizing for other religions or even practicing them publicly is outlawed.
Kingdom’s Poor Record
However, the sentencing of the Lebanese man has not been taken lightly by the Lebanese government. Lebanon’s foreign affairs minister, Adnan Mansour, told the publication NOW, that the case was “personal and not political” and was waiting for more information from the Lebanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia. The incident has drawn attention to the country’s record of religious persecution.
Saudi Arabia’s commitment to “safeguarding Islam” from the “evangelistic thrust of Christianity” comes at the cost of hurting its own efforts to rebrand itself as religiously open-minded. Last year King Abdullah, who has promoted limited reforms since coming to the throne in 2005, opened a center for religious dialogue in Vienna that drew criticism because of Saudi Arabia’s own lack of religious freedom. In 2008, he also sponsored an inter-faith conference in Spain.
But these efforts seem vain when considering the gross violations of human rights that are rampant in the Kingdom itself, which appears immune to the reasoning that their restrictive religious laws breed religious intolerance and violate the universal right to religious freedom, something that is not even guaranteed in the constitution.
For this reason, among others, Saudi Arabia was ranked second in the 2013 Open Doors’ Watch List of the most religiously oppressive countries in the world. Public Christian worship is forbidden and worshipers risk imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture. Evangelizing Muslims and distributing non-Islamic materials is illegal. Muslims who convert to Christianity risk honor killings and foreign Christian workers have been exposed to abuse from employers.
Saudi Arabia is even immune to political persuasion. The U.S. government has thus far exempted Saudi Arabia from punitive measures because of the oil trade. As Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told Fox News, “Since 2004, the United States has designated Saudi Arabia a severe violator of religious freedom, yet the U.S. government has waived any punitive action that such a designation mandates. Until the U.S. government lifts this waiver and prioritizes religious freedom in its relationship, you can expect limitations and abuses to continue.”
Without any political leverage and the constant dependency on the region for its oil resources, the international community seems unwilling and unable to confront the monarchy about its poor record of religious freedom, even as Christians in Saudi Arabia continue to be trapped in a specter of control through fear and intimidation.