Saudi Arabia only allows Muslims to become citizens. It threatens Christian converts with the death penalty and allows officials and neighbors to persecute religious minorities. Open Doors International ranks the kingdom as the 15th most oppressive country toward Christians.
So why did Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman invite nine evangelical Christians from the United States to visit him on Sept. 10?
Members of the delegation said in a statement they went to Saudi Arabia to “engage in dialogue about countering extremism, the Middle East peace process, religious freedom, human rights and an update on ongoing reforms.” It was their second such meeting: A similar group first met with Saudi royals last October, shortly after the kingdom faced intense international criticism for the brutal killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Joel C. Rosenberg, an author and dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who led the trip, said it was unrelated to either the American or Israeli governments. The group included Johnnie Moore, an unofficial evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump; A. Larry Ross, a former spokesman for Billy Graham; and Christian media leaders.
In a phone call from Jerusalem, Rosenberg told me, “If God opens a door for us to meet with these leaders, we consider it an opportunity and responsibility to discuss various issues that Christians have wanted to talk about.”
The crown prince has portrayed himself as a reformer, taking steps such as allowing movie theaters to open and letting women drive. The reforms are part of an economic overhaul called Vision 2030, designed to make the kingdom less dependent on oil revenue and to encourage foreign investment.
“They have to find a way to be appealing for Westerners,” said Claire Evans, International Christian Concern’s regional manager for the Middle East.
At the same time, though, the crown prince is developing a reputation for brutality. Human Rights Watch reported last year that since he came to power in 2017, “Saudi authorities have escalated an intensified a coordinated crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists.” Though women are now allowed to drive, nine female activists who fought for that right remain imprisoned. The country has also executed more than 650 people since 2013, more than 200 of them for nonviolent drug crimes.
Many Washington lawmakers have soured on the United States’ partnership with the Saudis. Added to the involvement of 15 Saudi nationals in the 9/11 terror attacks and the country’s contribution to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Khashoggi killing was, for many, the final straw. Khashoggi was a Saudi exile in the United States who wrote columns critical of the crown prince for The Washington Post. The CIA concluded that Saudi operatives carried out the murder and the crown prince was complicit “in the highest way possible,” U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said after a briefing with the CIA in December 2018.
The American evangelicals met with the crown prince and other Saudi officials in Jeddah, Khashoggi’s hometown. Rosenberg said the evangelicals raised concerns with them over human rights and religious freedom, such as Christians being unable to gather and worship together in public.
The group, according to Rosenberg, also asked the crown prince to issue a royal decree “affirming the right of religious minorities to study their Holy Books and practice their faith and worship in the privacy of their own homes.” He added, “Christians and other religious minorities are allowed to worship in their own homes … but not every Christian is convinced that that is the case. … There’s no law that says that is OK.”
Rosenberg said the Saudi leaders’ responses were off the record.
Evans said Saudi actions like inviting foreign evangelicals are positive but symbolic steps. “They don’t do anything other than send a message to a foreign component that you can come here,” she said. “They have not taken any concrete steps to actually make a difference in ways that would improve religious freedom.”
Evans added that ICC has heard from some people on the ground who have found such steps encouraging. “They’re amazed because this is the first time the country has even acknowledged Christianity or religious freedom in some capacity,” she said, adding that many others remain skeptical that things will change. “Another group of believers—they think it’s all just smoke and mirrors.”
Rosenberg said he plans to remain patient.
“We’re asking [the crown prince] for other things he can do better with, so we’ll be watching,” he said. “It’s not a threat, it’s a reality. He didn’t have to invite us, didn’t have to raise an expectation. … We told him that; if you invite us and meet with us, Christians around the world will be expecting change.”