I was sent to these Arabs as a stranger, unable to think their thoughts or subscribe to their beliefs, but charged by duty to lead them forward and to develop to the highest any movement of theirs profitable to England in her war. If I could not assume their character, I could at least conceal my own, and pass among them without evident friction, neither a discord nor a critic but an unnoticed influence.
—T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926
Every year Saudi Arabia lands on or near the top of lists of violators of religious freedom, and every year the royal family that rules the kingdom could not care less. The United States has formed an alliance with this intransigent opponent of human rights for reasons that parallel the charge given to Lawrence of Arabia. Leading Saudi Arabia forward into unfathomable wealth by developing its oil industry, the United States has found the partnership profitable for both economic and geopolitical interests.
U.S. oil companies arrived in Saudi Arabia a generation after Lawrence helped lead Arabs in their revolt against World War I-era Turks. Like the Christians who often work for these and other companies, Lawrence had no illusions about the limits of his ability to assume Arab character. But he did defer to his host culture, accepting its ways as a point of departure, and his example in war may yet have something to teach us about spiritual battles for human dignity.
Beheadings Every Friday
In 1992, December 25 fell on a Friday, the Muslim day of rest, when pastor Oswaldo "Wally" Magdangal was to be hanged in the Saudi capital of Riyadh for blaspheming Islam. Shari'ah law requires beheading for "apostates"—those who renounce Islam—as well as for murderers, and no Friday passes without at least one such execution in the public square following the noon prayers, rights organizations say. Hangings are reserved for "blasphemers" like Magdangal. Foreigners of non-Islamic faiths can worship legally in private in Saudi Arabia, but the 42-year-old Filipino pastor was arrested after his growing house church had become too noticeable. On December 23, Magdangal wrote out his last will and testament for his wife and young daughter.
Religious police had tortured every part of his body in trying to force him to renounce his faith in Christ. Embracing Islam would have won his immediate release. Initially the religious police, or muttawa'in—a vigilante force with a hierarchy and membership extending into government and other sectors—beat him throughout 210 minutes of mocking interrogation. They handed him a pencil and paper and demanded names of other Christians he knew. He refused.
"Eventually I was so weak, they placed the pad of paper in my lap, and they forced the pencil into my hand," Magdangal told CT. "I was weeping, and I said, 'Lord, you've got to help me here,' and I began to write the names of Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon, and others. After a few days, they were so mad, because they'd been all over Saudi Arabia looking for those people."
During interrogations—which included flogging of his back, his palms, and the soles of his feet—the muttawa'in did not state charges against him. Only when he answered that he agreed with an article predicting the ultimate fall of Islam in Christ for the Nations magazine (which the muttawa'in found in his home) was the basis for the eventual blasphemy charge established.
Magdangal was not allowed to speak during his high court trial, which Muslim clerics held in secret.
"I was shaking with pain; I was trembling with fear," Magdangal says. "I kept asking them to get my wife, but that led them to tell me in strong words to stand silent—not to say a word or I would suffer the consequence of every word I spoke. That's when I just broke down, and I just wept and wept."
By then the lower court had read some charges—preaching a message different from the Qur'an, "building" a church—but only hinted at the blasphemy charge. Magdangal would learn of the blasphemy verdict before he knew the charge itself: a muttawa'in officer interrogating him, Lt. Bader Alyaya, said his case had become "very serious" and that he was going to be hanged.
"He motioned around his neck like a noose, and then he pulled the noose above his head in a motion with his hand," he recalls. "I knew that people guilty of blasphemy are hanged to death for three days, to send a strong warning to the Muslims not to turn to another religion, and for Christians to not try to reach the Muslims."
Magdangal describes a sensation of fire or lightning striking him in the chest. "It felt like there was something within me that was getting ready to explode, and as I opened my mouth, the words came out: 'I shall not die but live and declare the works of my Lord, for no weapon formed against me shall prosper, for greater is he who is in me than he who is in the world,' " Magdangal says. "That's all I said. And then I bent over, and I wept, and I wept, and I wept."
Normally Saudi authorities do not tell the condemned of their sentence until the day of their execution, so as to forestall appeals and protests, Magdangal says. Sometimes the authorities go the extra step of leading prisoners to believe they are being released just before executing them.
Magdangal knew only that the Philippine embassy had filed protests of his detention, which went unheeded, though soon Amnesty International also was monitoring his case. As executive secretary to the Saudi director of Defense and Civil Aviation, Magdangal had close friends high in the Saudi government, including members of the royal family—and even in the muttawa'in—who only gradually had become aware of his arrest. Muttawa'in officers warned each of Magdangal's high-level friends to stop advocating for him.
The threats worked. But a general secretly told Magdangal's wife to inform Fidel Ramos, then-president of the Philippines, that the case had become "very serious."
"The reality is that in Saudi Arabia the majority of the people, even those in the government, are not aware that the Muslim clerics are persecuting Christians," Magdangal says. "Even among the Muslim clerics, not all of them are aware that some of their colleagues are persecuting Christians."
Fresh off victory from Saudi soil in the Gulf War, the U.S. Congress and the White House joined with human-rights organizations to appeal for Magdangal's life—unbeknownst to him. By December 23 he had settled in his heart that he was going to be executed.
"I was heavily burdened for my wife and my daughter," he says. "I pictured myself hanging between heaven and earth, and I said to the Lord, 'I would ask you to order the Devil himself to deliver my spirit to the gates of heaven. And when I take my first step inside the gates, before you separate me from the evil, give me the privilege to strike the Devil right in his face.' "
Magdangal then prayed that if he were spared, he would be a voice for the persecuted. Shortly before midnight, the prison commander arrived with orders to deport Magdangal. "Even at that point, from the prison to the airport, I was very terrified because the two officers with me were interrupted on their radio by Muslim clerics who were yelling, fighting my release, and telling them to divert the car and bring it somewhere else to kill me," he says.
Now president of Christians in Crisis, an advocacy group based in Sacramento, California, Magdangal later learned from a friend high in the muttawa'in that military advisers were vying with clerics for the ear of King Fahd bin Abdul al-Aziz Al Saud—whose mandate in Saudi Arabia, the clerics reminded him, was to uphold Shari'ah.
"The war was still very fresh, and Saddam Hussein was still a major threat," Magdangal recalls. "The military advisers were saying, in essence, 'King, we are under such pressure from the friendly nations—what is one person compared to what we are facing from Saddam Hussein, and all the benefits that might be diminished as a result of executing this person?' "
King Fahd ordered Magdangal to be expelled within 24 hours. According to Magdangal's muttawa'in contact, 500 Muslim clerics resigned their state posts in protest.
Magdangal believes the advent of U.S. sorties against Iraq in the Gulf War triggered a wavelet of Saudi persecution of Christians that led to his arrest. Islamic leaders, fearing closer ties with the United States would tighten the rein on them, decided to attack Christians while they could. They would not arrest him until months later, but muttawa'in raided Magdangal's house hours before U.S. bombing began.
A decade later, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is much more contentious as America pressures its key regional ally, largely in vain, for cooperation in the "war on terrorism"—and this as the two countries hold opposite allegiances in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raging in the foreground of the Saudi conscience. It is virtually impossible to know what effect the convoluted and secretive U.S.-Saudi relationship might have on persecution levels in Saudi Arabia, but kingdom observers see signs that the royal family is steadily corralling the religious police.
Charles W. Freeman Jr., president of the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council, was U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. He believes the uprightness of Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, half-brother of the stroke-impaired King Fahd and to some extent the de facto ruler, will favorably influence the muttawa'in.
"Particularly under Crown Prince Abdullah, the muttawa'in are very much subdued and on the defensive," Freeman says. "And one of the reasons he's able to rein in some of the more fanatical elements of the Saudi populace is that he himself has a well-justified reputation for being a pious and godly man."
The government recently struck a blow to the clerics following a March 11 fire at a girls' public intermediate school in Mecca. As 835 students and 55 women teachers fled the building, several members of the muttawa'in beat them back because they were not wearing their long black cloaks and head coverings. They also beat civil defense workers trying to rescue the girls.
This interference reportedly caused some of the 14 casualties. The government not only fired the head of the General Presidency for Girls' Education—a powerful institution controlled by the clerics—but also abolished it in function. The regime folded it into the Ministry of Education, according to Virginia Sherry, associate director of the Middle East Division of Human Rights Watch.
"This is an incredibly radical move, and this full-scale critique in the Saudi press of the religious police is a new development," Sherry told CT. "There's been no indication that the government is going to publicly rebuke the religious police, but I was completely surprised that heads rolled and that with one pen stroke the entire agency was abolished."
In addition, since September 11 the Saudi government has instructed clerics to preach a more tolerant version of Islam, Sherry notes. "There's speculation as to whether or not that's posturing for a Western audience, but it's also clearly intended to rein in the clerics," she says.
Freeman, who has also been assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, says Abdullah is trying to find ways to open the kingdom and make it more tolerant, even in the area of religion.
"Certainly the discovery that Osama bin Laden was able to recruit Saudis to his cause—his cause being to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, with the attack on the United States being merely a means to that end—actually set off quite a bit of soul-searching in the kingdom," Freeman says.
A slight easing of religious intolerance could emerge from such reflection, both Freeman and Sherry say. Freeman notes that Abdullah has considered allowing Christian organizations with medical programs to help attend to the thousands of wounded Palestinians who are treated in Saudi Arabia. And he calls a speech that Abdullah gave to the Gulf Cooperation Council last December "very remarkable, because it reflects a spirit of soul-searching and self-criticism that is not too often seen among leaders anywhere, much less in the Arab world."
Whether such setbacks for the muttawa'in make them more dangerous or less to underground churches in Saudi Arabia is a murky matter. Traditionally, such cornering of the religious animal can cause the muttawa'in to strike with more ferocity.
"The religious authorities and their police force are putting constant pressure on the civil authorities to be more Islamic—including to act stronger against Christian activity," says one rights advocate based in the United Kingdom. "At the moment, and as a result of September 11, the government is more vulnerable to pressure from the religious elements."
'morally Depraved' Critics
The clerics' power—including the leverage to topple the government—cannot be discounted. In the royal family's precarious position between the forces of modernity and traditional clerics, Saudi rulers generally have tried to appease religious dissidents rather than clamp down too severely, says Dudley Woodberry, a pastor in Riyadh in 1976-79 and dean emeritus and professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Indeed, The New Yorker reported in its October 22, 2001, edition that electronic intercepts of conversations in the royal family show the regime is so insecure that it has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in "protection money" to fundamentalist groups that would otherwise overthrow it. Some of the Saudi funds went to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group, according to the report.
"The dilemma one faces," Ambassador Freeman told CT, "is that those who are most opposed to the royal family are either themselves murderers, that is, morally depraved people, or they resemble the followers of the late Ayatollah Khomeini in their vision of a future that is even less tolerant than the prevailing one. That is, the dissidents who are sitting in London are not arguing for a more open and tolerant society; they're arguing the opposite, as Khomeini turned out to do for Iran."
With restive, unemployed youth stuck in a cracked economy increasingly filling their ranks, Saudi extremist groups could lash out at the 870,000 Christians among the country's 7 million foreign workers (nearly a third of the country's population). If the response of a Saudi underground church to queries by Christianity Today is any indication, fear still weighs heavily in the atmosphere—all members felt answering questions could jeopardize their safety. One Western man daring to reply anyway said that since 1998, the Christian community has been through several periods of arrest, detention, and deportation of leaders.
"Most of those began with Christians being 'too visible,' " he told CT. "These have been almost entirely Asians, and they pay the greatest price in terms of lost leadership, loss of income, and harassment from employers and religious authorities. Quite honestly, I do not want to answer your questions. Am I being overly cautious or gun-shy? I don't know."
Concerned that descriptions of his life in Saudi Arabia would provoke a crackdown, the Westerner nevertheless said he hoped this article would "inform Christians about the intolerant, close-minded attitude of Saudi Arabia and much of the Muslim world. Christians need to know this."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom knew this well, recommending—unsuccessfully, given obvious diplomatic sensitivities—that the State Department designate Saudi Arabia as one of nine "countries of particular concern." The commission dismissed the Saudi claim that non-Muslims are permitted private worship. The Saudi definition of "private worship" is vague, and underground worshipers have been "arrested, imprisoned, deported and harassed by the authorities," according to the commission.
Appealing to Muslim Roots
Saudi Arabia tops the lists of religious freedom violators for the same reason its rulers don't care about such lists: In a theocracy entrusted with preserving a narrow Islamic "purity" and the shrines in Mecca and Medina, denial of religious freedom is integral to the country's cultural identity. As Crown Prince Abdullah has said, the two holy shrines are the "primary restrictions" on change. "Our faith and our culture are what drive the country," he once said. Somehow, though, other Islamic countries have cultures far more tolerant than Saudi Arabia's.
Saudi Arabia is a charter member of the United Nations, and yet it brazenly disregards the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts the right to profess, propagate, and change faith. But U.N. ideals may not be the best starting point for transforming a medieval theocracy.
Saudi Arabia was founded on the Muslim equivalent of the Reformation—Wahhabism, which in the 1700s rejected the religious accretions of previous centuries to return to the authority of the Qur'an. Shari'ah is its constitution. Whereas the Christian Reformation eventually encouraged the separation of church and state, Saudi Arabia grew out of an alliance in 1744 between the political emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, and the Islamic reformer, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab.
With religion and the state thus wedded, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights carries about as much weight in Saudi Arabia as a treatise on secular humanism would for conservative televangelists, Middle East observers say. Rather than start with institutions and documents that are Western in essence, better to address Saudis on their own terms—Islam's historical writings. Letters attributed to Muhammad in the Tabaqat of 9th-century historian Ibn Sa'd, for example, allowed Christians in Najran (in today's southwestern Saudi Arabia) to have churches and priests. Fuller Seminary's Woodberry used to distribute copies of these letters while pastor of a house church in Riyadh.
"We circulated these letters basically to let the government know that at least Muhammad had allowed the Christians that were in the area to continue to worship and have priests as long as they were loyal citizens," Woodberry says.
Avoiding the unenviable position of trying to interpret Islam for Saudis, church members limited themselves to passing out copies of the letters.
"We did it first in English, and then I gave them Arabic copies as well," Woodberry says. "It uses the sources that are considered important to them."
Likewise, the Qur'an says Jews and Christians belong to a category of people protected from aggression. Some references in the Qur'an also suggest that the Sabeans, probably a gnostic group in south Arabia, were also protected people, Woodberry says. That extra category has enabled the government of Indonesia, for example, to protect the religious freedom of Hindus and Buddhists. And there is a plethora of history in which Islam peacefully coexists with other faiths.
How do such Islamic documents go over with those of the strict Wahhabi faith? "Wahhabism emphasizes going back to the original sources of the faith, the Qur'an and Muhammad, so it's very impressive to them if you can point out that Muhammad allowed the Christians the freedom to raise their children as Christians, and to have churches and priests," Woodberry says.
He does not dismiss appeals to the U.N. charter. But any international pressure, Middle East observers say, must be applied gently in light of the Muslim clerics' fury at the generally corrupt regime seen as too friendly to the United States. "We never felt that the royal leadership was that much against us, but their position was tenuous enough that they didn't want the same thing to happen to them that had happened to Iran when the Shah was overthrown," Woodberry says.
Ambassador Freeman also suggests appeals to the human rights inherent in Islam. He notes that the Qur'anic injunction to submit to Allah presupposes choice and liberty of conscience, and that "Islam is very clear that there can be no compulsion in religion."
Most Saudis, with the notable exception of some in the royal family, would counter that according to the hadith (teachings attributed to Muhammad) "there can be no two religions" in Arabia, but Freeman says this probably applied only to Mecca.
"There are so many other things said in the Qur'an about respect that I suppose the correct interpretation might be that there can be no proselytizing of the native population in Arabia," he says. "But I don't see why that should be interpreted as expatriates or temporary residents of Saudi Arabia being denied the right to worship as they consider right."
Freeman holds out hope that, with some loosening of religious controls, Christians could earn the right through social service ministries to be heard about human rights. "It might be that an offer by a Christian church not to proselytize in Saudi Arabia, but to inspire by example, to minister to those who are maimed in the intifada by the Israeli occupation, might be timely," Freeman says.
This indirect route, compared with direct protest, is a quieter, more concealed, less conspicuous influence. Supporting Abdullah's efforts to gain entry into the World Trade Organization, thereby opening Saudi Arabia to more outside influences, would be another way of indirectly promoting human-rights issues, Freeman adds.
There is, however, a place for overt protest. Though the effects of agitating for human rights are disputed—sometimes they result in more severe persecution—in the long term, it is usually helpful that rogue regimes know the international community is watching.
The Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, declined to answer questions posed by Christianity Today via e-mail—such as how he would advise Americans to address Saudi human-rights issues—but keeping such concerns before Saudi officials plays its part in the overall strategy. Polite, respectful inquiries about human rights can be sent to Prince Bandar at, believe it or not, firstname.lastname@example.org. (Top Gun is one of the ambassador's favorite movies, an assistant says. It also should be noted that since 1979, U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia, including a state of the art command and control system for the Royal Saudi Air Force, total more than $50 billion.)
The Human Rights Game
To be sure, Saudi Arabia is "playing the human rights game," according to Sherry of Human Rights Watch. It has signed U.N. women's rights and anti-torture conventions, for example. And, last October 1, Saudi Arabia adopted its first written penal code.
Saudi officials have not made the new penal code available to rights organizations, but agency workers suppose it will give force of law to the Qur'an-based "administrative regulations."
These include the 23-year-old "regulation" against torturing prisoners. Amnesty International documented a 1996 case in which a Sudanese man signed a murder confession—by Saudi authorities forcing his thumbprint onto a declaration of guilt—after police suspended him by thrusting steel poles through his knee and elbow joints. He was later executed.
"The Saudis have a slew of administrative regulations on, for example, detention procedures, prison conditions, and access to prisoners," Sherry says. "The penal code might very well take all those regulations and codify them into something that is a law. Whether they're adhered to is a different matter."
Any such progress will come slowly, and criticism of the proud Saudis will not be the primary agent for change, says David E. Long, a retired foreign service officer who worked in the region.
By appealing to Saudi sources of authority and offering to serve in their social causes, Western Christians might, like Lawrence of Arabia, make the Saudis' struggle our struggle. That would entail finding a spiritual basis of mutual interest as powerful as the mundane one of oil for security. It also may mean identifying a common enemy—the Devil, as Magdangal prayed before he was to be hanged—rather than labeling each other as Satan. It's a lofty undertaking, but Long, a former counter-terrorism official and author of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, notes that jihad has to do mainly with spiritual struggle.
"Jihad is the suppression of vice, maybe by force, and the encouragement of virtue, maybe by the sword, but nevertheless it's a broader concept," he says. "There's enough in Islam that is parallel and compatible with human rights that we could say, okay, fine, if you look at everything by Islamic law, but we encourage you to look at the human rights elements in Islam—after all, this is 'God's word.'"
Jeff M. Sellers is an associate editor at Christianity Today.
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Christianity Today'spersecution archive has more articles on religious discrimination and violence from around the world. The World Report section allows readers to search for past articles by country (see articles on Saudi Arabia).
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Jeff M. Sellers writes Christianity Today's "Bearing the Cross" articles which have focused on persecution in countries including Saudi Arabia, India, Laos, China, Indonesia, Sudan, North Korea, Pakistan.
In May, Sellers covered a summit of a core group of political and Christian leaders who issued a "Statement of Conscience" on religious persecution.
Flogged and DeportedWhat you can do to help persecuted Christians in Saudi Arabia. (May 7, 2002)
U.S. Ally Jails House-Church LeadersMore than a dozen Christians imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since last summer. (November 11, 2001)
Naming NamesWere the State Department's actions on international religious freedom compromised by the war on terrorism? (Nov. 7, 2001)
What Does 09.11.01 Mean for Religious Persecution Policy?Persecution watchdogs fear religious freedom will suffer. (Oct. 10, 2001)
Two Christian Leaders Arrested by Saudi Arabian AuthoritiesJeddah campaign strikes to eliminate house churches. (July 30, 2001)
Four Christians Released By Saudi AuthoritiesOne detained Filipino still waiting for employer's guarantee. (March 6, 2000)
Saudi Arabia Keeps Four Christians Under ArrestWives and children released after two weeks (Jan. 31, 2000)
Riyadh Police Raid Christian Worship ServiceTen adults, five children arrested; engineer still detained from previous arrest. (Jan. 10, 2000)
Christian Engineer Arrested in Saudi ArabiaCharges Against Filipino Termed "Religious-Related." (Dec. 27, 1999)
Arrested Christians Face DeportationPopular Christians meetings lead to house-church raids. (Dec. 6, 1999)
Filipino Christians Released By Saudi AuthoritiesLocal Employees Ordered to Fire and Deport Imprisoned Worshipers" (Nov. 3, 1999)
Two Filipino Christians Beheaded (Sept. 1, 1997)
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