Saudi Arabia is planning to deport 35 Ethiopian Orthodox Christians from the Muslim kingdom on the charge of “illicit mingling,” according to a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The Christians were arrested in Jeddah in mid-December during a private prayer session. Women from the group were subsequently subject to an unwarranted invasive strip searches by Saudi police, HRW stated.

“Illicit mingling” refers to an assembly of unmarried persons of the opposite sex.

While under custody at various police stations, some of the Ethiopian women said they were forced to strip and searched for illegal substances in their genitals. The men claimed they were beaten and insulted by police for being “unbelievers.”

The Ethiopian prisoners also complained of unsanitary conditions in the jails, as well as preferential treatment accorded to Saudi inmates.

They are now facing deportation, even though some of the Ethiopians have legally resided in Saudi Arabia for as long as 16 years.

Ironically, the arrests of the Christians came shortly after Saudi Arabia established and funded the King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna, Austria, to promote inter-faith relations.

“While King Abdullah sets up an international interfaith dialogue center, his police are trampling on the rights of believers of others faiths,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher for HRW in a statement.

“The Saudi government needs to change its own intolerant ways before it can promote religious dialogue abroad.”

HRW also pointed out that in 2006, the Saudi government promised it would stop interfering with private religious ceremonies of non-Muslims. (Public worship of any faith other than Islam is strictly forbidden in the kingdom).

“Saudi authorities have broken their promises to respect other faiths,” Wilcke said.

“Men and women of other faiths have nowhere to worship in Saudi Arabia if even their private homes are no longer safe.”

Regarding the “illicit mingling” law, in 2006, Shaikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the president of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the religious police, told HRW: “Mingling of the sexes is prohibited in public, and permitted in private unless it is for the purpose of corruption.”

Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest Christian nations, having adopted the faith as the state religion as long ago as the 4th century.