Muslims converting to Christianity in Saudi Arabia, despite intense persecution
Forced to live in secret, Christians in Saudi Arabia are being supported in their faith online.
Islam is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, where the legal system is based on Sharia law. Courts regularly impose severe physical punishments, including the death penalty, for apostasy, and non-Muslim places of worship are prohibited.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Saudi Arabia "remains uniquely repressive in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam".
The government prosecutes, imprisons and flogs individuals for dissent, apostasy, blasphemy and sorcery, and imposes "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom".
It's not only religious people who are targeted. A law enacted in 2014 equates atheism with terrorism. The legislation bans "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of Islamic religion."
There are, however, some 1.4 million Christians living in the country. According to a study earlier this year, 4.4 per cent of Saudi Arabia's population identifies as Christian – up from less than 0.1. per cent (50 people) just over 100 years ago in 1910.
The majority of these Christians are expatriates or migrant workers, but according to persecution charity Open Doors, Saudi natives are also turning to Christianity.
The charity is supporting Mohammed (name changed), a secret believer who converted after learning about Christianity through an online discipleship course. He made contact with Christians in another Middle Eastern country, and then spent a week there – going to church for the first time, and attending Bible studies.
After a few days he was asked who Jesus was. "He is my Saviour, my God", was Mohammed's reply, and he was baptised, returning to Saudi Arabia with a Bible.
He knows no other Christians in his home country, but receives continued support online.
Saudi Arabia ranks 14th on Open Doors' list of countries where Christians are most persecuted. According to the USCIRF, the government has made "improvements in policies and practices related to freedom of religion or belief", but "it persists in restricting most forms of public religious expression inconsistent with its particular interpretation of Sunni Islam".
Human rights groups have heavily criticised the relationship the US and UK each hold with Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International last week called for an investigation after evidence emerged that illegal British-made cluster bombs had been used in Yemen by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.