ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP)–Five of some 20 expatriate Christians arrested in Riyadh last month were deported by the Saudi Arabian government to their home countries July 14. Four Filipinos and a Dutch national were believed to have been expelled for involvement in Christian activities, which are strictly forbidden in the Muslim kingdom.
At least eight other Filipinos arrested in the police crackdown on suspected Christian worshipers reportedly have been transferred out of detention cells, in preparation for their imminent deportation.
Riyadh sources also confirmed Saudi authorities had promised to return the confiscated passport of Yolanda Aguilar, enabling the young mother to apply for an exit visa to return with her month-old baby daughter to the Philippines. After Aguilar’s husband, Rufino, fled Saudi Arabia on June 11 to avoid arrest, his nine-months pregnant wife was detained and interrogated by Saudi police several times. She has remained under semi-house arrest at the hospital compound where she gave birth.
Filipino Christians Ariel Ordona, Angelito Hizon, Ruben Aguirre and Gali Afurong arrived in Manila shortly before noon July 14 on a direct Saudia Air flight. They were met by relatives and members of their home churches.
According to a church leader who talked personally with three of the four men, all the prisoners had been surprised when they were suddenly told they were being released and deported without a formal trial. The released Christians said they expected more of the former prisoners to arrive on the next flight to Manila from Riyadh.
“Only one of the men I talked with was harmed physically while under arrest,” the church leader said.
From Holland, Dirk den Hertog confirmed his brother Wim den Hertog arrived early Tuesday morning on a direct flight from Riyadh to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. The 35-year-old Dutch businessman was reunited with his wife and three children 31 days after his arrest. During his detention he was held incommunicado from any diplomatic access. His family eventually was allowed to speak with him three times by telephone.
“We have not been informed officially about the charges, nor were we given any access to visit him while he was in prison,” spokesperson Bridget Tazelaar confirmed from the Dutch Foreign Ministry in The Hague.
“According to (Wim den Hertog), he is not allowed to go back. But I cannot confirm that,” Tazelaar told the Compass Direct news service.
A Dutch friend who spoke with den Hertog said he had been treated well. “Every day he got vegetables and all kinds of fruit, and he didn’t have any physical abuse, only psychological pressure,” the source said. Contrary to earlier reports that the Dutch citizen had been arrested by the “muttawa” (religious police), den Hertog stated his case had been handled by the Ministry of Interior.
The Dutch Christian said he was kept in solitary confinement for the first two days and questioned for many hours during the initial 17 days of his detention. “But he told me that last weekend there came a sudden change in the attitudes of people who were handling his case,” the source told Compass. After his transfer to another cell, he said one inmate tried to convert him to Islam so he could “preach Islam in the Netherlands.”
When the newly installed government of Philippines President Joseph Estrada failed to comment on the arrest of its citizens, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines made a public appeal for presidential intervention on July 9. Most of the half-million Filipinos working on contract in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf nations are Roman Catholic.
On behalf of the bishops, spokesman Monsignor Pedro Quitorio told Agence France Press some of the prisoners had been tortured to reveal the names of other Filipinos living in Riyadh who were practicing Christians.
According to the Vatican news service, Fides, one of the Filipino prisoners carried marks of physical torture when he was released after 14 days of interrogation. Gaudencio Lorenzo “suffered several broken bones and multiple wounds,” Fides reported. Another source, who had spoken with a Christian living in Riyadh, said Lorenzo had been forced to convert to Islam before his release.
Reportedly at least one prisoner admitted he had been released under the condition that he not discuss his detention. “We were treated fairly, given food and soap, and a doctor checked my blood pressure,” one Filipino Christian told a close friend in Riyadh after his release.
Although a high-level member of the royal family insisted publicly for the first time last year that Saudi government policy allows private non-Muslim religious worship within homes, foreign Christians continue to report police investigation and harassment of such worship services.
In March 1997, Filipino Christian Donato Lama was deported after being subjected to 17 months in prison and 70 lashes. He was arrested when police discovered a photo album snapshot of him leading a Catholic communion service in a private home.
“Freedom of religion does not exist,” the U.S. State Department’s 1997 Human Rights Report on Saudi Arabia states. “Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of other religions.”
Baker is the Middle East bureau chief for the Compass Direct news service.