Eritrean Christian Still Jailed in Saudi Arabia
Unpaid Traffic Fine Declared 'Last' Hurdle for Deportation

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, July 15 (Compass) - As soon as Girmaye Ambaye pays off a traffic fine
he owes, officials in Jeddah declared today, the Eritrean Christian jailed
nearly four months ago for prohibited "Christian activities" can be deported
from Saudi Arabia back to his home country.

"He has to pay 950 Saudi rials to the Saudi government for a traffic
 violation," an Eritrean Consulate representative told Compass by telephone.

A little less than $300, the alleged fine appeared on the government's
immigration and customs computers last week, when the Eritrean Consulate was
finalizing the paperwork for Ambaye's exit permit and formal deportation.

Ambaye, 42, has been jailed since March 25 at the Bremen deportation center in
Jeddah. He became active in an Ethiopian-Eritrean Christian congregation in
Jeddah five years ago.

"I was arrested because the police caught me preaching the gospel," Ambaye
commented yesterday. "They told me that there is no pardon in Saudi Arabia for
proselytizing, and that I must leave the country."

But the Eritrean's deportation has been stalled for weeks because of the
ownership of a car registered in his name. Last week, Ambaye reportedly signed
papers to send his car to the junkyard after his friends were unable to sell

The consulate representative said he was told Ambaye's friends were collecting
money for him so that he could pay the fine and be cleared for deportation.
"The papers from the consulate are finished, and there's nothing else," he
said. "He has to pay the money, and then he can leave."

In mid-June, a consular official told Compass that, according to the case
officers visiting Ambaye in prison, "This guy is nuts. He doesn't want to leave
the prison. He is doing his religious persuading inside there." Declaring that
Ambaye's preaching in his detention cell had angered the guards, the official
commented, "What he was doing is very dangerous inside the jail."

"It's not true that I am not wanting to leave this place," Ambaye told someone
who talked with him yesterday. "They want me to pay this money, but I have no
money." Ambaye said he was not sure if he really owed this traffic fine to the
Saudi authorities, as the Eritrean Consulate officials claimed, or if in fact
they were demanding a bribe to go into their own pockets.

"But I am all right here," Ambaye said, despite a persistent cough caused by
the dozens of heavy smokers crowded into his cell. "I am happy in Jesus Christ
even here. I only want the will of God to be done in my life."

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is only a 45-minute plane flight south of
Jeddah across the Red Sea. Weekly direct flights to Eritrea are scheduled on
Tuesdays and Saturdays.

A tailor by trade who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia since 1987, Girmaye
is the 13th member of his congregation to be arrested and deported from Saudi's
largest port city in the past two years. Local security police continue to keep
its members under surveillance, threatening some to make them stop attending
the worship services.

The Saudi government prohibits public Christian worship among its expatriate
residents, routinely arresting and deporting foreigners nabbed by the police
for infractions of the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islamic law. The
jailed Christians are rarely given formal charges in writing or taken to face a
court of law.

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