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SAUDI ARABIA: Filipinos charged with ‘proselytizing’ after religious police raid Catholic Mass

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It didn’t take long before a private Roman Catholic Mass organized by expatriates in the capital of the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia was shut down.

As the service got underway at a hotel last week, officers from the feared religious police, also known as the Mutawa, barged onto the premises, shutting down the Mass and arresting 13 Filipinos, including a Catholic priest, Saudi media reports say.

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The group was released on bail after being briefly detained at a nearby police station, but they are still facing serious criminal charges for allegedly organizing the Mass, the Arab News, a Saudi English daily, reported.

‘They were charged with proselytizing,’ the newspaper quoted Ezzedin H. Tago, chargé d’affaires at the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, as saying.

The rest of the approximately 150 expatriates caught up in the raid were reportedly let off the hook -- partly because there was not enough space at the police station to accommodate them.

It is estimated that more than 1 million Catholics live in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are migrant workers from the Philippines.

The kingdom, home to some of Islam’s holiest sites, considers the conversion of Muslims a serious offense, and the crime carries the death penalty. However, such verdicts are rarely handed down by the Saudi court system, controlled by Islamic clerics, according to the Reuters news agency.

Because the kingdom applies a strict brand of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, any non-Muslim worship must take place behind closed doors in non-Muslim homes only. For adherents of faiths other than Islam, worshipping or wearing religious symbols, such as crucifixes, in public could mean trouble. The last Christian priest was reportedly booted from Saudi Arabia in 1985.

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However, there have been recent efforts aiming to bring more religious openness to Saudi Arabia. Two years ago, the Vatican and Saudi Arabia began talks about building the first church in the kingdom.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

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