Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Here's Religious Tolerance in Saudi Arabia ...

27 October, 2004
SAUDI ARABIA - INDIA
Ten months in jail and 300 lashes for Christian prisoner O'Connor

Indian Christian in prison for seven months charged with evangelisation sentenced only for “selling alcohol”. Indian Christian activist writes to Saudi monarch asking for his compatriot’s release.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – On October 20, a Saudi court in Deerah near Riyadh sentenced Brian Savio O’Connor, a Indian Christian resident in Saudi Arabia, to ten months in prison and 300 lashes for selling “alcoholic beverages”, this according to Middle East Concern (MEC), an organisation dedicated to the fate of Christians in the Middle East that has been monitoring the case of the Protestant man from the south-eastern Indian state of Karnataka.

Mr O’Connor has been incarcerated in Olaya prison since March 25 after the Muttawa, the Saudi religious police, abducted him from home and tortured for 24 hours in a mosque.

He was later charged with preaching Christianity, selling alcohol, drug use and possession of pornographic videos. He has always denied the charges, but has acknowledged leading Bible studies in his home for expatriate Christians after the authorities published information in the local press whereby non-Muslims could practice their religion at home. In practice, religious freedom does not exist in the country except for Muslims and any religious activity outside Islam is considered a felony.

In his October 20 court hearing, the judges found him guilty of selling alcohol but did not mention any of the other charges: drug use, evangelisation and, after September 15, possession of pornographic videos.

After reading the sentence, the court asked Mr O’Connor if he accepted this decision. He declined thus appealing the decision. He was warned that under Saudi law the higher court would most likely increase the sentence if it, too, found him guilty.

During the hearing Brian asked why the religious police who arrested him were not present as had been announced at the previous hearing. He was told that they had given their statement at a private hearing.
According to the MEC and Mr O’Connor’s family, the Muttawa did a good job at trumpeting up the alcohol charges. He was found in possession of banknotes—whose serial number the Muttawa had taken down—that had been used by an agent paid by the police to purchase the alcohol.

MEC sources claim that the O’Connor file has now moved to the “Departure” section of Olaya prison indicating that he might be expelled from the country after Ramadan.

Following the Court’s decision, Indian activist John Dayal wrote an appeal to Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud asking him to “give clemency to O’Connor” and urge the Saudi government to “release this Indian citizen who has already suffered much”.

“We are sure,” Mr Dayal said in the letter, that “we will not be disappointed in this appeal for mercy and justice in the name of universal brotherhood, human dignity and the friendly relations between the two countries, India and Saudi Arabia.”

John Dayal is the President of the All India Catholic Union (which represent India’s 16 million Catholics) and the Secretary General of the All India Christian Council, one of India’s major ecumenical Christian organisations. AsiaNews and other Catholic websites (see www.stranocristiano.it) have followed the O’Connor case and promoted an awareness campaign on his behalf.

In the letter to the Saudi king, Dayal states that O’Connor’s “employers have declared that the allegations against their employee are not valid” even though it is accepted that he is a practicing Christian.

According to Dayal, Mr O’Connor’s arrest, his experience in jail and now his sentence have caused “deep concern” amongst Indian Christians. “Brian,” Dayal wrote, “has no criminal record at home or abroad, and has been arrested, we feel, just for his religious convictions.” (LF)

Copyright © 2003 AsiaNews