RIYADH Thirteen Filipinos have been charged with proselytising in Saudi Arabia after being arrested during a private Roman Catholic Mass celebrated in a Riyadh hotel last week, a Saudi newspaper said on Wednesday.
The Filipinos, one of whom is a Catholic priest, were briefly detained for organising the service raided by the Muslim kingdom's ultra-conservative religious police, Arab News said.
About 150 expatriates attended it, the newspaper said.
"They (the 13) were charged with proselytising," the daily quoted the Philippine Embassy's charge d'affaires in Riyadh as saying. They were later released on bail, the paper added.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, applies an austere form of Sunni Islam that confines any form of non-Muslim worship to the privacy of non-Muslim homes. Christians often hold services in hotel conference rooms.
Ibrahim al-Mugaiteb, head of the independent Saudi Human Rights First Society, said the overall situation for Christians had improved since King Abdullah took office in 2005.
"The fact that they were only briefly detained shows a change," he said. Neither Saudi officials nor the embassy were immediately available for comment.
Converting Muslims is a crime in Saudi Arabia punishable by death penalty, although such verdicts have rarely been handed out by Saudi courts, which are controlled by Muslim clerics.
The world's top oil exporter is home to several million expatriates, many of them non-Muslims.
The Catholic Church has urged Riyadh to lift the strict limitations on Christian worship there and allow construction of churches in return for the rights Muslims have in Western countries to build mosques.
Catholic bishops from across the Middle East will hold a two-week synod at the Vatican starting on Sunday to discuss how to help Christian minorities in the majority-Muslim region.
(Reporting by Souhail Karam and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Michael Roddy)