New religious freedom row over Saudi flight Bible ban

By staff writers
1 Jan 2007

The New Year has started more-or-less where 2006 left off, with a new row about religious symbolism and artefacts in relation to the policy of a major airline.

A Bible-carrying Christian flight attendant, who works for British Midland Airways (BMI), has been barred by her employer from flying to Saudi Arabia, where the importation and use of narcotics, alcohol, pork products and religious books, apart from the Qur’an, are forbidden.

Those claiming that Christians are often treated in a discriminatory fashion with regards to dress and devotion, as in the British Airways case over a ban on costume jewellery which included a small cross for one employee, are likely to latch onto the case.

It also raises wider human rights questions regarding what critics say is the British government’s often quiescent stance towards Saudi Arabia, with which the West has massive political and economic ties.

The Foreign Office has backed the airline over its decision. And the Telegraph newspaper quoted a BMI official as saying: "We issue advice to all our staff and passengers that these are the guidelines. She is saying she wants to carry her Bible with her. We are saying we cannot start designing rules around individuals when we have several hundred members of staff. To take every personal preference into account would be impossible."

The steward has taken the case to an industrial tribunal, and further legal action may follow.

Religious expression is a controversial issue in Saudi Arabia. In 2006 a court there sentenced a teacher to 40 months in prison and 750 lashes for discussing the Bible and “praising Jews”. Even Christmas trees are banned in the oil-rich kingdom, which says that it allows religious freedom.

Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal declared: "Arab tradition and Muslim tradition is geared towards having an open mind. Muslim religion accepts Christianity and Judaism."

But civil rights organizations say that religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam and that churches are in affect prohibited from functioning.

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