Eritrean Christian Still Jailed in
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 it. 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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