Fears for Saudi christian converts
Two Saudi Arabian asylum seekers at opposite ends of the country have suddenly flown home, and friends are convinced they have been forcibly repatriated because they'd turned their backs on Islam. Tony Wall and Blair Ensor investigate.
A half-eaten chop rots in a frying pan on a stove. Packaged food spills out of a pantry. Elsewhere: electrical appliances, spartan furniture, towels, clothing.
Someone has left this council flat in the Christchurch suburb of Redwood in a hurry.
No-one has seen or heard from the tenant, Saudi refugee Khalid Muidh Alzahrani, known as Daniel, for three weeks, and the council has applied for an abandonment order for the property.
Alzahrani, 42, suffered polio as a child, uses a walking stick and a wheelchair, and has other serious health problems.
He arrived in Christchurch about five years ago on a Saudi Government scholarship to study English, moved to Dunedin after the earthquakes and then returned to Christchurch, converting to Christianity and applying for asylum. He was granted refugee status on the grounds that he would be persecuted in Saudi Arabia, and told friends he was terrified he would be kidnapped and forced to return.
The Saudi ambassador to New Zealand told the Sunday Star-Times Alzahrani had "insisted" on returning home to visit his mother and the consulate had paid for his air ticket. But his friends don't believe it - they say he was last seen in the company of two strange Arab men and believe he was taken out of the country under duress, possibly by agents of the state or family members.
Police state that they are not treating the case as a kidnapping at this stage but have reached out via Interpol to make sure that Alzahrani is OK.
People who convert from Islam to Christianity are known as MBBs - Muslim Background Believers - and some members of the MBB community in Christchurch have gone into hiding, fearing they too will be targeted.
One source said Saudi government agents were planted among the thousands of students who came to New Zealand each year to study, to ensure their behaviour did not bring "shame" on the Kingdom or their families.
In Saudi Arabia it is against the law for Muslims to abandon their faith, and Christians and other religious minorities are subjected to discrimination, harassment, detention and in rare cases torture and death.
There have been numerous documented cases of Saudi nationals being uplifted from foreign countries. In 2012, columnist Hamza Kashgari, who'd been accused of insulting the prophet Mohammad on Twitter, tried to seek asylum in New Zealand but was intercepted in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, sent home and jailed without trial.
In May last year, a young Saudi Christian who had arrived in Auckland two months earlier and claimed asylum was snatched off the street by three men just three days before his refugee interview and was flown back to Saudi Arabia, where it is believed he spent time in prison and was tortured. His lawyer, Roger Chambers, said the man had managed to secretly make contact with his friends in Auckland.
"He has had a dreadful time in Saudi Arabia," Chambers said. "[He was told] more than once if he did not renounce his Christianity that he could expect to be beheaded."
In Christchurch, an elderly neighbour said the last time he saw Alzahrani was about three weeks ago, leaving in a white, four-door car with two men "who weren't New Zealanders".
Alzahrani's GP alerted police when he failed to turn up to a medical appointment. Immigration New Zealand confirmed that Alzahrani left the country on July 31 but refused to say if he was travelling alone.
Police said they were satisfied he had left voluntarily.
"However, due to Mr Alzahrani's ongoing health issues, police have made a request ... to the Saudi Arabian authorities to enquire as to his welfare," they said in a statement.
Saudi Ambassador Ahmed Al-Johani said in a statement Alzahrani had "insisted" he wanted to return home, "so we provided him with a ticket as he requested". He left New Zealand on a Cathay Pacific flight via Hong Kong and had "safely arrived to his family".
Al-Johani released health records from two-and-a-half years ago when Alzahrani had sought help from the consulate because he could not afford his medical bills. "We offered Mr Alzahrani all the help and support he needed."
The Star-Times understands that was before Alzahrani sought asylum. Al-Johani ignored other questions about Saudi Arabia's stance on Christian converts.
Members of the Christian community in Christchurch who were providing Alzahrani with financial support to supplement his invalid's benefit are upset with the police response to their complaint. They have tried repeatedly to reach Alzahrani, without success.
They said his dream was to bring his two young daughters to New Zealand. It was out of character for him to disappear without telling his friends, they said.
"Daniel made it very clear that he would never return to the Middle East as it was too dangerous for him as a Christian," a friend said.
"He shared many times that he was fearful of abduction."
A source said Alzahrani's brother had visited Christchurch a few months ago and given him an air ticket to return to Saudi. He had refused to take it.
"The fear of his brother visiting caused him to have very bad nightmares about being killed in his flat." the source said. "He felt in a very dark place and was irrational at times. Why would a man like this want to go back into the lion's den?"
A source familiar with Saudi asylum-seekers said that when a family member converted, "religious police" would visit the family and give them a deadline to sort it out themselves.
"Often the oldest son will be sent to get them and bring them home and re-indoctrinate them."
In the Auckland case, it is believed one of the three men who snatched the asylum-seeker was his brother. A source said the other two were travelling on diplomatic passports and were captured on CCTV footage at Auckland airport.
Chambers said his client had been so worried about the possibility of being kidnapped and forcibly returned home that he changed his name by deed poll and applied for asylum on religious persecution grounds.
His conversion had "outraged" his family.
The Star-Times has been told he was married to a member of the wealthy, influential bin Laden construction family.
After he disappeared his friends searched his flat in Grafton, central Auckland, and found all his clothes and belongings still there, including credit cards.
Chambers said New Zealand officials met the man when his plane landed in Hong Kong, but he indicated he was returning voluntarily and was allowed to proceed.
"There was considerable doubt as to whether that was a voluntary statement. The evidence suggests he was kidnapped ... and we suspect they were agents of the state, but there may have been a family involvement."
He had written to Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse seeking help in the case, and hoped that the man could be returned to New Zealand to resume the asylum process.
"I am really concerned. If we can do something to rescue him I'd very much want that. Any New Zealander would be horrified, it's appalling."
SAUDI ARABIA, BY THE NUMBERS
$1.47 billion Value of NZ-Saudi trade.
17,000 Saudis have come here on student visa since 2009, many on the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme.
$130 million Value to economy.
43 Number of Saudi nationals claiming asylum since 2010 (21 approved).
Sunday Star Times