(CNSNews.com) - Bibles found in the possession of visitors to Saudi Arabia are routinely confiscated by customs officials, and in some cases copies allegedly have been put through a paper shredder, according to religious rights campaigners.
Reports from the Islamic world of the abuse of Bibles and other items important to Christians emerge from time to time, but generally have little impact - in contrast to the wave of Muslim anger sparked by a Newsweek report, since retracted, of Koran desecration by the U.S. military.
"The Muslims respect the Koran far more than Christians respect the Bible," says Danny Nalliah, a Sri Lankan-born evangelical pastor now based in Australia.
During the 1990s, Nalliah spent two years in Saudi Arabia, where he was deeply involved with the underground church.
"It's a very well-known fact that if you have a Bible at customs when you enter the airport, and if they find the Bible, that the Bible is taken and put in the shredder," he said in an interview this week.
"If you have more than one Bible you will be taken into custody, and if you have a quantity of Bibles you will be given 70 lashes for sure - you could even be executed."
Nalliah had not himself seen a Bible being shredded but said the practice was widely acknowledged among Christians in the kingdom.
Abuse of Christians and their symbols was not restricted to the destruction of Bibles, he added.
A friend of his, a fellow Christian in Saudi Arabia, told him of witnessing a particularly unpleasant incident involving a Catholic nun.
The man had been in the transit lounge at the airport in Jeddah - the gateway to Mecca, used by millions of Hajj pilgrims each year - when a nun arrived at the customs desk.
"Some fool [travel agent] had put her on a transit flight in Jeddah. You don't do that to a Catholic nun, because she's going to be tormented."
"They opened her bag, went through her prayer book, put the prayer book through the shredder ... took the crucifix off her neck and smashed it, tormented her for many minutes."
Eventually another Muslim official objected to their conduct, came across and "rescued" her, pointing out to the customs officials that she was not entering the country but only in transit and would be leaving on the next plane.
Briefed beforehand about the risks, Nalliah said he did not carry a Bible when he arrived in the kingdom in 1995.
Subsequently, however, he took possession of hundreds of Bibles that had been smuggled into Saudi Arabia to be used by believers there.
Nalliah said he had a close call one morning when armed members of the notorious Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice - the religious police, or muttawa - hammered at his front door at 1 a.m.
With 400 smuggled Bibles "sitting on the dining room table," he believed his life to be in serious danger. "That was a crime equal to rape, murder, armed robbery, and in Saudi Arabia you get the same punishment," he said - the death penalty.
Nalliah said he had prayed earnestly and, in what he could only describe as a miracle, the men left without entering his home.
Claims of Bible desecration in Saudi Arabia have been made by others.
"One Christian recently reported that his personal Bible was put into a shredder once he entered customs," the late Nagi Kheir, spokesman for the American Coptic Association and a veteran campaigner for religious freedom in the Middle East, wrote in an article several years ago.
"Some Christians have reported that upon entering Saudi Arabia they have had their personal Bibles taken from them and placed into a paper shredder," the U.S.-based organization International Christian Concern said in a 2001 report.
In its most recent report on religious freedom around the world, the State Department made no reference to Bible destruction, but said they were considered contraband.
"Customs officials routinely open mail and shipments to search for contraband, including ... non-Muslim materials, such as Bibles and religious videotapes," it said. "Such materials are subject to confiscation, although rules appear to be applied arbitrarily."
In a 2003 report on Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent watchdog set up under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, said: "Customs officials regularly confiscate Bibles and other religious material when Christian foreign workers arrive at the airport from their home countries initially or return from a vacation."
Inquiries about the legality of Bibles and about the shredder claims, sent to the Saudi Embassy in Washington and the Saudi Information Ministry in Riyadh, were not answered by press time.
Koran vs. Bible
After Nalliah left Saudi Arabia in 1997, he went to the U.S. and took part in the lobbying effort on Capitol Hill in support of what eventually became the International Religious Freedom Act, signed into law the following year.
He heads an evangelical ministry in Australia, where late last year he and a colleague became the first people to be found guilty under a controversial state religious hatred law, after Muslims accused them of vilifying Islam during a post-9/11 seminar for Christians.
Nalliah said this week it did not surprise him that Muslims have reacted strongly to the claims that U.S. interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay base, where terrorism suspects are held, had thrown a Koran into the toilet.
While Bible scholars say the Bible is written by men who were inspired by God, Muslims believe the Koran is "the copy of an original that is sitting in heaven, and has been sent down [by revelation to Mohammed]."
The book is seen as something sacred in itself, he explained, its words having come "directly from Allah. That's why they are so mad when they think something [unseemly] is being done to the Koran."
A Muslim will never keep a Koran at ground level, for instance.
The Pentagon says a January 2003 memo issued to U.S. personnel at Guantanamo Bay instructed them to "ensure that the Koran is not placed in offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet, or dirty/wet areas."
Even in Western societies, Nalliah noted, copies of Bibles could often be found in witness boxes of courts, ready for use when witnesses are sworn in. But the Koran will generally be kept in safe storage elsewhere, covered in cloth, to be brought in when required by a Muslim witness.
He said such reverence for the Koran stood in stark contrast to some Muslims' feelings about the Bible, however.
Nalliah said the Koran was "confusing" on this score. In places (e.g.: sura 29:46-47) it appeared to urge Muslims to respect the Bible and those who believe in it; elsewhere it exhorts them to fight those who don't accept Islam until they pay tribute and accept inferior status (sura 9:29-31).
According to author and Islam scholar Robert Spencer, "a devout Muslim might very well mistreat a Bible, because traditional Islamic theology regards it as a corrupted and unreliable version of the genuine revelations that were given to Moses, Jesus, and other Prophets."
Spencer noted that in sura 9:30 the Koran says those who believe Jesus is the Son of God are under Allah's curse.
"Throughout history, most Muslim theologians have held that the New Testament has been tampered with since it teaches that Jesus is the Son of God."
Some of the more notorious reported incidents of Muslims abusing Christian symbols implicate Palestinian radicals, including the trashing of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002; and the desecration of Maronite churches in Damour, Lebanon in 1976.
In the Damour episode, Yasser Arafat's PLO killed more than 500 of the Christian town's inhabitants before turning it into a stronghold, and used the interior of the St. Elias church for a shooting range, according to published accounts.
US Still Mulling Consequences for Saudi Religious Persecution (May 19, 2005)
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