Just days before Crown Prince Abdullah showed up at President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, to declare that "tolerance must extend to those of all faiths and practices," Saudi police stormed a clandestine church in a suburb of Riyadh and arrested 40 Christians for proselytizing.
Saudi state-controlled newspapers reported on April 23 that two days earlier, security forces rounded up 40 men, women, and children of Pakistani citizenship who were worshipping at an abandoned villa in western Riyadh, according to translations provided by American-based Saudi monitors.
Al-Riyadh newspaper quoted a security official as saying that the Christians were arrested for "trying to spread their poisonous religious beliefs to others through the distribution of books and pamphlets," the Saudi Institute in Washington, D.C., said in a report.
That the arrests occurred just hours before Mr. Abdullah flew to Texas for a friendly meeting with Mr. Bush underscored the gap between Saudi pledges to the White House and its actions at home.
"What they are doing is saying one thing in English and giving another signal to their own people," said Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House, a human rights organization. "They are saying to the hard-liners at home that nothing is going to change. It's a way of speaking out of both sides of their mouth."
Last Monday, Messrs. Bush and Abdullah met at the president's ranch for talks focused on energy policy and issued a joint declaration in which the Saudis affirmed their commitment to religious tolerance.
"Saudi Arabia reiterates its call on all those who teach and propagate the Islamic faith to adhere strictly to the Islamic message of peace, moderation, and tolerance and reject that which deviates from those principles. Both countries agree that this message of peace, moderation, and tolerance must extend to those of all faiths and practices," it read.
The arrests came as Congress and the American human-rights community pressure the White House to punish the kingdom for violating religious freedom.
Human-rights monitors and lawmakers have criticized the Bush administration for not penalizing the Saudi government after the State Department in September designated the kingdom a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act. The 1998 statute gave the State Department the authority to officially single out "nations guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom."
Though a deadline for imposing penalties passed more than a month ago, State Department officials have said they need more time from Congress to decide on an appropriate action to take.
A security official in charge of the police raid and others who have targeted Riyadh's foreign population, Lieutenant Colonel Saad al-Rashud, said services at the underground church were led by a Pakistani who heard confessions, gave Communion, and claimed to heal the sick, the Associated Press reported.
The Web site of Al-Riyadh newspaper published a photo of the inside of the church, showing more than 13 people - with their faces blurred - sitting and standing in a small room decorated with a red cross. A woman is shown in a wheelchair. Musical instruments, including an organ, are piled on a rug in the center of the room.
The raids were ordered by the brother of Saudi ruler Crown Prince Abdullah, Salman bin Abd Al-'Aziz, the governor of Riyadh, and were part of a wider Saudi crackdown on foreign laborers, according to the Saudi Institute report. The recent arrests have also targeted prostitution, piracy, and illegal drug use, according to Saudi press reports.
Ms. Shea said she has had heard conflicting reports about the status of the detained Christians.
"We don't know for sure" if the Pakistanis have been released, she said. One of those arrested is Muslim, according to Saudi reports, which subjects the Pakistanis to charges of proselytizing that carry severe prison sentences.
Ms. Shea said her organization hears about one or two cases a year involving arrests of underground worshippers. Religious authorities most often target the Filipino Christian community in Saudi Arabia, she said. Americans in Saudi Arabia, she said, are usually left alone.
"In the calculation of the Saudis," she said, "Americans only care about American Christians. "The Saudis felt that there would be no outcry about this."
Pakistanis are the third most populous foreign nationality in Saudi Arabia, with just fewer than a million living in the country.
The director of the Saudi Institute, Ali Al-Ahmed, said the Saudi newspaper reports on the arrests suggest that the government is becoming more open about its persecution of religious minorities. The articles on the arrests, he said, were "the first time they actually put it in the newspapers."
"They used to be shy about it," he said.
In its 2004 report on international religious freedom, the State Department declared that "freedom of religion does not exist" in Saudi Arabia.
"It is not recognized or protected under the country's laws, and basic religious freedoms are denied to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam," the report stated.
While the government officially allows non-Muslims to practice their religions at home and in private, the report said, authorities often do not respect the law.
The Saudi government has also been found to promote religious intolerance abroad. The Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House issued a report in January that said pamphlets found in mosques in America carried an assertion from the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs that Muslims who convert "should be killed."