By Michael Ireland
Senior International Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
WASHINGTON, DC (ANS) -- Over the past month, Saudi Arabian officials have been making conflicting statements when asked why a group of 35 Ethiopian Christians were arrested at a prayer service in a private home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last December.
International Christian Concern (ICC) www.persecution.org says it has learned that the statements were made over a period of several weeks after staff members from multiple Congressional offices began calling the Saudi embassy in Washington D.C. to inquire into the situation.
ICC says the calls began soon after ICC held a series of meetings during the last week of April on Capitol Hill to raise awareness of the case and to ask for calls from Senators, Representatives, and their staff to the Saudi Embassy.
In a media update, ICC says that on Monday, May 7, a Congressional office told ICC that a source close to the Saudi ambassador had indicated the Christians were arrested as part of an investigation into a large scale human smuggling ring.
ICC says this explanation contradicted the original rationale published by Human Rights Watch in January that the group had been accused of the "illicit mingling of genders."
Then, just three days later, Sarah Nezamuddin, a representative from the Embassy, told a separate Congressional office that the Christians had all been arrested for having issues with their work permits.
ICC proceeded to provide a list of the prisoners with legal work permit numbers to the Congressional office, and after some follow up, Ms. Nezamuddin changed the explanation and said that the Christians were involved in both drug and human trafficking.
ICC goes on to report that finally, on May 21st, in a meeting with staff members from multiple Congressional offices, representatives from the Saudi government said that the 35 Christians had been arrested for visa issues, but that they were also involved in some form of smuggling ring.
ICC said: "When pressed for specifics, the Saudi officials reportedly demurred and changed the topic. At least one Congressional staff member left the meeting with the impression that neither Saudi official actually knew why the Christians were arrested in the first place."
Speaking with ICC, one of the prisoners reported feeling "very sad, and very surprised" at the constantly changing allegations.
"Why haven't they brought us to court? Why don't they show us some evidence and bring charges against us?" said one of the prisoners. "[We feel like] the Saudis are trying to punish us for being Christians by keeping us in prison."
ICC further states that soon after the May 21 meeting, the prisoners reported being taken to a processing center for the first time since their arrest.
However, after two extended trips to the processing center, the prisoners were returned to their cells without any new information as to when or if they will be released.
After speaking with some of the prison authorities, one of the prisoners reported being under the impression that orders had "come from higher up" for their release, but that the prison authorities may be reluctant to let them go.
Ryan Morgan, ICC's Advocacy Officer, said: "I continue to be baffled by the inability of the Saudi government to explain exactly why 35 Christians attending a prayer service at a private home were suddenly arrested almost six months ago.
"The story keeps changing, and it is very troubling to think that a key U.S. ally in the Middle East may be lying to U.S. government officials about why they are arresting religious minorities. I strongly encourage interested individuals to call the Saudi Embassy and express their concern at this alarming turn of events."
The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia can be reached at the following numbers:
United States: (+1) 202 342 3800, Canada: (+1) 613 237 4100, UK: (+44) 207 9173-000, Australia: (+61) 2 6250 7000, Germany: (+49) 30 88 92 50, France: (+33) 1 56 79 4000, Ethiopia (+251) 1 710303.
ICC is a Washington,DC-based human rights organization that exists to help persecuted Christians worldwide. ICC provides Awareness, Advocacy, and Assistance to the worldwide persecuted Church. For additional information or for an interview, contact ICC at 800-422-5441 or 301-585-5915.