Saudis' Religious Intolerance

LAST October, an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox pastor named Mikhail Cornelius Mikhail was arrested during his workday at a carpentry shop in Saudi Arabia. After being charged with blasphemy against the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad, Mikhail was told that he ``would be released if he converted to Islam.'' Mikhail reputedly restated his Christian faith and was sentenced to seven years in prison and 1,000 lashes. After serving four months' detention, he was deported to Egypt, but not before receiving 500 of the 1,000 lashes.

Pastor Mikhail's case was frighteningly reminiscent of the plight of the church in Romania under Ceausescu or in the Soviet Union under the pre-glasnost Gorbachev of the mid 1980s. But his story does not come from behind the fallen Iron Curtain; it is a real-life account of the suffering of Christian believers behind the iron veil of Islamic control in Saudi Arabia.

The persecution of Pastor Mikhail is recounted in a newly released report by Amnesty International on religious intolerance in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty is to be applauded for drawing attention to the systematic denial of religious liberties by the Saudis and a ``marked increase'' in the arrest and imprisonment of Christians in the country since the Gulf crisis.

This incident suggests that the Saudis are strategically shrewd in focusing on non-Westerners - mainly Asian Christian expatriate workers - as primary targets of their religious cleansing campaign. The Saudis erroneously assume that they can escape international scrutiny if they avoid harassing and imprisoning American and European workers. Thus, the state and religious police routinely break up covert prayer meetings and worship services of Filipino and Korean Christians before arresting believers and their pastors. The ``light'' treatment of Christians by police includes confiscation of religious materials, interrogation, beatings, and brief imprisonment before deportation.

In one sense, the West should not be surprised. American servicemen and women received a dose of Saudi intolerance during the Gulf war. Many of us were outraged that our troops, risking their lives to defend principles of liberty for the Saudis, were not allowed to freely worship, were told to remove crosses and other religious symbols, and were forced to call their own chaplains ``morale officers.''

Unfortunately, the iron veil of intolerance covers not only Saudi Arabia, but other Muslim nations such as Egypt, Turkey, and Iran, where reports of religious oppression are mounting. Americans hold dear our constitutional protections guaranteeing freedom for religion and consequently stand behind international statutes mandating religious liberty.

It is time for Congress and the Clinton administration to focus on religious oppression in the Muslim world in our diplomatic dealings with these nations, especially in questions of aid and arms sales, where our leverage is greatest. I have requested a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on religious intolerance in Islamic nations and believe the cases detailed by Amnesty will help expedite congressional attention.

The Amnesty report could not have come at a better time, with international attention riveted on the Middle East and the prospects for peace in the region improving. Hopefully our new vision of the region will become broad enough to include Saudi Arabia and human rights violations there.

The veil has been lifted a bit higher, and it is now up to us to act upon what we have seen.

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