Sunday, October 10, 2010

Religious toleration in Saudi Arabia - Filipinos caught praying

As long as we're on the subject of Saudi Arabia, it's worth noting another interesting feature of life in that society: the ongoing tension between the desire to impose complete religious uniformity, which means that all public non-Muslim religious practice is legally banned and there is intense discrimination against non-Salafist forms of Islam, and the practice of importing foreign guest-workers to do most of the work in Saudi Arabia, which means that there are actually a fair number of non-Muslims floating around. There's always the danger that they might suddenly start praying, or something.

One result, as Mick Hartley points out, is that "[t]he work of the Saudi Religious Police is never done." The English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News reports:
Twelve Filipinos and a Catholic priest have been released on bail in Riyadh after being arrested at a rest house in the city’s Rawdah district last Friday.

The arrests followed a raid by members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice on the premises, where 150 expatriates were said to have attended a Catholic mass.

However, a source told Arab News that only the priest and the 12 Filipinos were arrested for allegedly being the organizers and leaders of the group while the others were let go because they could not all be accommodated at the police station.

“They were charged with proselytizing,” confirmed Ezzedin H. Tago, chargé d'affaires at the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh. [....]

"It did not mean that their case had been settled. If they are proven guilty as charged, they would go back to jail," the source said. [...]
My guess is that the charge of proselytizing is probably a bogus addition in this case. But the more significant point is that (non-Muslim) proselytizing is, in fact, a crime in Saudi Arabia—and is also illegal in a number of other Muslim countries, by the way.

Still, one should keep all this in proper perspective. Agence France-Presse elaborates:
Saudi Arabia bans the practice of any religion aside from Islam. However, small, low-key prayer services inside expatriate compounds and in Filipino gatherings are tolerated by officials.
That seems reasonable and pragmatic, doesn't it? I don't know why some people claim that Saudi Arabia is religiously intolerant.
With more than one million workers in Saudi Arabia, Filipinos comprise the bulk of the Christian community inside the kingdom.
I don't know whether that figure of one million is accurate. But the general order of magnitude doesn't sound entirely implausible. Millions of Filipinos work abroad, and there are definitely a lot of Filipino guest-workers in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil states ... along with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Indians, and so on. Welcome to 21st-century global capitalism.

--Jeff Weintraub