Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Saudi Arabia is continuing a crackdown on foreign Christians who are living and working in that country for faith-based reasons, arresting at least six during the last week, according to human rights groups.
The new arrests mark the latest in a series of reported infringements on Christian freedom of worship in the Islamic kingdom,which is a strategic U.S. ally in the Gulf. They follow the arrests of three other Christians in July, two of whom are still being held.
According to the British-based group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Tinsaie Gizachew from Eritrea, and Afobunor Okey Buliamin from Nigeria, were arrested on August 19. The following day Baharu Mengistu, an Ethiopian, was also arrested.
Three other Eritrean Christians also arrested on August 19 are known only by their first names - Gabayu, Kebrom and Mesfin, CSW said. There are unconfirmed reports that several other Christians have also been arrested but their identities are unknown.
"There have now been at least nine Christians arrested and ill-treated in Saudi Arabia in the last few weeks," said Tina Lambert of CSW.
"It is time the international community sat up and took notice of this fundamental abuse of human rights. These people have been arrested and jailed and in some cases tortured for their religious beliefs," she added.
A CSW spokesperson said the case of Buliamin was particularly worrying. Although a Christian, the Nigerian national's passport identifies him as a Muslim, raising the risk of him being charged with apostasy under Islam's strict shari'a law.
Buliamin may be a Muslim who converted to Christianity, or a Christian who had identified himself in his passport application as a Muslim to make it easier to get a job, she said.
Whereas most foreign nationals arrested in the past on charges related to their religious faith have been interrogated and eventually deported, this would not necessarily apply to the Nigerian.
"The penalty for apostasy is death and that would apply across the board," she added.
Saudi authorities appear to have launched the crackdown against expatriate Christians in an attempt to track down Saudis who have links with the Christians. It is against the law for a Saudi to convert from Islam.
CSW said the general pattern seems to be that Christians are periodically arrested and interrogated to expose the underground Christian network.
Washington-based human rights organization International Christian Concern said there also appeared to be a pattern of arresting Christians in Saudi Arabia during the summer months.
ICC president Steven Snyder suggested that this could be the case because Saudi officials knew there is much less interest in news in the West during summer vacations and parliamentary recesses.
Snyder agreed that interrogators seemed to be "trying to identify Saudi citizens who have converted to Christianity."
Although no-one has been publicly executed recently for his or her faith, Snyder said, reports had been received that some Saudi converts to Christianity had been executed on what appeared to be trumped up capital charges, such as drug dealing.
It was believed Saudi officials were aware that executions for religious reasons would stir an angry response in the West, and so appeared to be finding other ways to punish converts.
There was no way to confirm these reports or identify individuals, he added, because trials are not open to outsiders and even the Red Cross is not permitted into the prisons.
Those recently arrested are all believed to have attended a meeting in Riyadh of around 400 people, apparently including Saudi nationals, at which hymns were sung and a sermon preached.
The Ministry of the Interior confiscated songbooks, bibles, cassettes and a computer, which contained a list of the names of other Christians in the city, ICC said.
Shortly thereafter, authorities arrested at least one other Christian whose name was recorded on the computer.
According to the ICC, a Christian whose name is apparently on a list for arrest, called the organization and asked: "Does anyone care that we Christians are targeted by the intolerant Muslim regime for elimination? Please pray for us; but not only pray, speak up for us."
On September 1, the State Department is due to publish its annual report on religious freedom around the world.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal commission that monitors religious freedom worldwide and advises the administration on how best to promote it, has for the third year recommended that the State Department place Saudi Arabia on the list of "countries of particular concern."
The president is then required to decide what action, if any, to take against countries so designated.
Last year's State Department report on international religious freedom said: "Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy without constitutional protection for freedom of religion, and such protection does not exist in practice."