Christians in Saudi Arabia are keeping very low profile

The tenuous relationship between the Saudi Arabian government and the Christian expatriate community came to an end with the recent expulsion from the kingdom of members of the Christian community's governing council in Riyadh.

In Saudi Arabia - the most conservative of the Islamic countries - the existence of a functioning Christian community was a feat in itself. Much of the credit for its presence goes to John West, former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the Carter administration.

Folklore among long-term Westerners in the kingdom is that Ambassador West, a product of South Carolina's Bible-belt politics, went to former King Khalid in 1977 and told him that if the Saudis were going to attract the type of people they wanted working in the kingdom, they were going to have to allow Christians some religious expression. Khalid agreed and the ground rules were set.

Christian religious services could be held if it did not appear that the government was in any way involved. There could be no obvious meeting place, no public advertising of its presence, and no proselytizing among Arabs.

Clergymen were allowed into the kingdom if they came under the sponsorship of a Western company. Consequently, the Protestant minister in Riyadh was under the sponsorship of Lockheed, and the Catholic priest was listed as a social worker with the British Embassy.

According to several participating Christians still in the kingdom, constant warnings were issued from the pulpit cautioning them to follow the rules and ''keep a low profile.''

Until the Islamic revolution in Iran, weekly services for Protestants were held at the housing compound for American advisers to the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Catholics worshiped at the British Mission.

But in the spring of 1979, new restrictions were imposed by the government. Worship in large groups was forbidden. Christians could continue to meet in private homes.

Then the rules changed again.

Presumably because it was out of the city and, therefore, out of sight of orthodox Muslims, Protestants were given permission to conduct services at a large housing compound Lockheed Aircraft Corporation maintains on the outskirts of Riyadh. In 1980, the situation again changed. Lockheed withdrew the use of its facilities.

Although never confirmed or denied, rumor was that an official in the Ministry of Defense and Aviation had threatened Lockheed with the loss of its contracts if Christian church services continued to be held on company premises. It was back to small meetings in private homes, dubbed the ''Catacombs'' by the participants.

With King Khalid's passing last summer, many thought the restrictions on Christians might be modified. The new king, Fahd, was perceived as being much more progressive than his predecessor, Khalid, or his probable successor, Abdullah.

Continuing to meet in private homes, most Christians assumed that after Fahd became more secure in his position, they would once again be allowed to function under the rules laid down by King Khalid.

But in January, members of the governing board of the Riyadh Christian Fellowship were suddenly picked up and taken to the Ministry of Interior for lengthy interrogation. According to church officials, the government's major complaint was that the Christians had a governing board and a bank account for the congregation. The Saudis insisted this constituted a formal organization, which had always been prohibited. New rules were issued - no governing board, no bank account, and no large meetings. These sources confirmed that the Christians promptly met all the conditions.

In May, Bill Antablin, the Protestant minister; Alan Carter, a founder of the Christian Fellowship; and all members of the board were again rounded up and interrogated. They were ordered out of the country within 24 hours.

The only member not deported was an employee of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps refused to surrender his passport to the Saudis without explicit direction from the American Embassy, according to a source within the Corps and a participant in the Christian community.

One of the deportees said protests were made to Prince Naif, minister of interior and the liaison with the Christians, over the expulsions. In questioning the expulsions the protesters told the prince that all of his instructions had been carefully followed. Prince Naif was said to have replied simply, ''The rules have changed.''

All organized activity among the Christians of Riyadh has ceased with little hope that it can be resumed in the foreseeable future.

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