A Lebanese man was sentenced to 300 lashes with a whip and six years in prison for his role in helping a Saudi woman convert to Christianity and flee the kingdom in the latest example of the religious intolerance that grips the region.
The court in the Eastern Saudi city of Khobar -- situated on the coast of the Persian Gulf -- also sentenced a Saudi man to two years in prison and 200 lashes for helping the young woman who has been dubbed “the girl of Khobar” -- in her escape to Sweden to secure asylum.
The woman, whose case has been closely followed in Saudi Arabia, criticized Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy for instilling in her a hatred of Judaism and Christianity, according to the English-language Saudi Gazette. The Jeddah-based paper wrote that she “fell in love with the religions after she found peace in Christianity.” But another Saudi woman who can only be identified as Maryam, also a convert to Christianity who is now living in the U.S., told FoxNews.com it was she who went on Saudi television wearing a veil and embracing her new faith. Saudi media mistakenly identified her as the "girl of Khobar," and now Maryam fears her TV appearance unfairly inflamed passions against the other woman - and the men who helped her.
The two men, who worked with the woman known as the girrl of Khobar at an insurance company, were arrested last July following a complaint filed by the woman’s father, according to reports. The lawyer for her family, Hmood al-Khalidi, expressed satisfaction with the severe punishments.
Maryam's TV appearance was also seen on YouTube, with her proclaiming her conversion came after a dream about climbing to the sky and hearing God say that Jesus is his son, according to the Gazette. But her unabashed faith did not go over well in her homeland, which has been singled out for its intolerance of religious beliefs other than Islam. She is now living in a midwestern state and is concerned that the case of mistaken identity has left others in danger.
"I am worried about the men that helped the girl of Khobar," she said.
Saudi Arabia’s failure to guarantee religious freedom in its closed society prompted the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its new report to cite the Gulf monarchy ruled by the 88-year-old King Abdullah as a “country of particular concern” because of its egregious violations of religious freedom.
The ongoing persecution of Christians and lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia has also triggered sharp criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
“Until all people have the freedom to choose and practice their religion, we have an obligation to speak out for the voiceless and to develop policies that protect these communities,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., co-chair of the Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East, told FoxNews.com.
The shocking punishments came as President Obama’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, departed for Saudi Arabia. Rep Joe R. Pitts, R-Pa., a member of the Helsinki Commission and Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said the Obama administration should speak up for Maryam, as well as the men convicted of guiding her on her spiritual path.
“Freedom of religion is an internationally recognized human right,” Pitts said. “The Obama administration should speak out on this case and urge the Saudis to release these two men.”
Aaron W. Jensen, a spokesperson for the Bureau Of Democracy Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department, told FoxNews.com,”We are seeking information about these reports. And if confirmed, they are very concerning. On freedom of expression and freedom of religion, which includes the right to change one’s religion, are fundamental human rights enshrined in the universal of declaration of rights. We strongly oppose laws that curb the peaceful exercise of these freedoms.”
Jensen added, “We continue to engage the Saudis at the highest levels to resolve these cases and to press for equal treatment in law and practice of all religious groups.”
Multiple FoxNews.com telephone calls and emails to Nail Al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian Embassy spokesman in Washington, were not returned. Lebanon’s Ambassador to the U.S. Antoine Chedid did not immediately respond to a FoxNews.com query.
Lebanon’s foreign affairs minister, Adnan Mansour, told the publication NOW that the case was “personal and not political” and was waiting for more information from the Lebanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia.
“There is zero tolerance for any non-Muslim religions in Saudi Arabia,” Nina Shea, the director of the Washington-based Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told FoxNews.com. Shea, a leading expert on the persecution of Christians, added Saudi “imams promote the destruction and humiliation of Christians and Jews” during their services in the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina.
Shea, a co-author of the recently released, “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” said a menu of penalties are available to the State Department, including economic sanctions in an attempt to change Saudi intolerance. Shea said the U.S. government has thus far exempted Saudi Arabia from punitive measures because of the oil trade.
“Religious freedom has not been a priority in the United States' bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, and, as a consequence, the U.S. government has not held the Saudis to account for reforms that would substantially improve conditions on the ground," Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told FoxNews.com. "Since 2004, the United States has designated Saudi Arabia a severe violator of religious freedom, yet the U.S. government has waived any punitive action that such a designation mandates. Until the U.S. government lifts this waiver and prioritizes religious freedom in its relationship, you can expect limitations and abuses to continue."
Benjamin Weinthal is a journalist who reports on religious freedom in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter: @BenWeinthal