One of the dirty little secrets about Saudi Arabia is that one third of their population is not Saudi but hired from other countries. If you include their dependents, the number is higher, and they make up over 60% of the work force, including 90% of the private sector.

So the next time you read that Osama Ben Laden wants all infidels out of Saudi, you have to remember that probably a lot of them work for his father’s company.

The presence of overseas contract workers is true for many of the oil rich countries of the Middle East, but unlike the smaller Shiite Gulf states, where many of my relatives prefer to work, in Saudi Arabia, freedom is much more restricted.

For example, Bishop Hinder is the bishop of a million Catholics on the Arabian peninsula. His cathedral is being built in Doha…He oversees churches in Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and even in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam where Christianity is practiced behind closed doors.

Speaking about the Christian communities in Saudi Arabia, he said: “It’s not an open church. Privately the Christians may gather in their houses in a very discreet manner.”

Imagine, a million Catholics meeting “behind closed doors” for fear of arrest or deportation (and of course Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Hindus, and Shiite Muslims including the 15% of Saudis who belong to that sect similarly have to be “discrete”).

Stories of how Christians cope are rare, but last week’s Panorama has a story of how Youth for Christ (YFC) and Couple for Christ CFC) run the undergound church in Saudi Arabia.

Like any YFC members, Marc knows only too well how difficult it is to keep his faith a secret from Arab authorities. In public places, Catholics are not allowed to pray. Thus, every time Marc’s family would dine in a restaurant, they would just silently pray without making sign of the cross. Also, they are not allowed to wear necklace with a cross pendant. There are no churches; hence, they hear mass through lay service held inside an available house of Couple for Christ (CFC) members. Sometimes, there is a random check of each house. Once authorities discover any activities or things (e.g., the Holy Bible and crucifix) related to Christianity, they will be arrested, imprisoned and at times, deported. “As a Catholic, we cannot really express our faith,” he says. “That’s why we’re always careful when it comes to that (expression of faith).”

One wonders why Nancy Pelosi did not ask to visit some of these “underground churches” when she visited Saudi Arabia last month.The presence of so many foreigners in the Gulf is one of the dirty little secrets that no one bothers to discuss.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the Philippines. Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket

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